The Largest “Vacant Lot” in Riverwest

by Peter Schmidtke

The wind gusts stronger along Bremen Street, past the Riverwest Tavern on Auer Avenue. That’s because it knows it has three acres to gather steam. Johnson Controls BrownfieldIt’s not a UFO landing field, but it might as well be. A chain-linked fence with prickly barbed wire rings the perimeter, and a dozen or more padlocked monitoring wells protrude from stubbly yellow grass like rusty periscopes from stalled submarines. Porch landings and picture windows on 1920’s-era bungalows face each other across the expanse, too far to catapult a barrage of water balloons on a sweltering August afternoon or to wave a grandchild in from a birthday party with friends. “Desolate” is how Riverwest resident Steve Filmanowicz described the site. “To have a big, open, fenced-up space like that in a residential area makes it look kind of odd,” said Filmanowicz, who lives a block and a half northeast of the space and passes by it every morning on his way to buy a newspaper. While Filmanowicz enjoys the green-space along the river, he thinks that this site would be best used by developing one and two-family residential homes and a small park. There are many others who think this way too. But first there’s the question of contamination. Johnson Controls BrownfieldThe rectangular lot in question was formerly used for light manufacturing (for a brief history, see page 8). Owned by Johnson Controls, it is bordered by the 900 block of Concordia Avenue on the north, the 3200 block of Bremen Street to the west, and Weil Street to the east. An alley behind the 900 block of Auer Avenue homes borders the land to the south. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) became aware of contamination at the site in 1995 when Johnson Controls contacted the DNR after a firm they hired detected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the soil and groundwater above the DNR’s enforcement standard, Wisconsin’s drinking water standard. According to the state’s “Spill Law,” Johnson Controls was required to notify the DNR and restore the environment “to the extent practical.” They were also required to send the DNR documents outlining their plans for investigating and remediating, or cleaning up the site Records filed at the DNR show that Johnson Controls’ consultants conducted five groundwater and/or soil investigations between 1995 and 2001. The company installed over sixty temporary wells to monitor groundwater below the site and below seven residential properties on Auer Avenue that border the southwestern edge, where some of the higher concentrations of contaminants were detected. Levels of Contaminants DNR files from 2001 show that most of the solvents tested for by the environmental engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) were at undetectable levels. The tests were done in temporary groundwater wells 15-30 feet behind residents’ homes. For the solvents that were detected, concentrations were far below both the enforcement standard and the more cautionary preventative action limit (PAL). Six of the twelve temporary wells at or several feet from the southernmost points of the alley 50-70 feet behind these residents’ homes revealed contaminant concentration limits of tetrachloroethene and/or trichloroethene VOCs above the DNR’s enforcement standard. (One of the wells also registered tetrachlorethene concentrations above the PAL standard.) Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, was detected above the enforcement standard in three of the wells along the side of the alley closest to residents and in two others located on Johnson Controls’ property, ten feet from the alley. The wells throughout the site ranged from depths of 10 feet to 40 feet, and according to the MWH report, the upper level of most of the groundwater on the site ranged from 3.7 feet to 10.5 feet. The samples from all of the on-site and off-site wells were sent to a state-certified laboratory for testing. Besides the concentrations of chlorinated solvents detected in the southwest corner, MWH detected solvents above the enforcement standard in eight of the temporary groundwater wells in the western two-thirds of Johnson Control’s site, including several with concentrations of the petroleum compounds benzene, ethylbenzene, tolulene, and xylene above the enforcement standard. Health Concerns What do these findings mean? Officials are emphasizing how low the levels are, but they are continue to monitor the situation. At the latest meeting on Jan. 23, a case manager from the DNR met with public health officials and a member of the city’s Redevelopment Authority about how safe the area is for current residents and possible future homeowners on the site itself. “We know from chronic industrial overexposure that vinyl chloride and benzene are known human cancer-causing carcinogens,” said Robert Thiboldeaux, a toxicologist with the Department of Health and Family Services (DFHS), about the health effects from overexposure to volatile solvents. “The others (tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, and dichloroethene) produce liver or kidney damage following overexposure.” However, said Thiboldeaux and Dennis Grzezinski, an environmental attorney retained by seven of the Auer Avenue residents, the levels of these chemicals in the groundwater samples taken from Auer Avenue residents’ backyards are far below the state’s groundwater enforcement standards. “The amount of exposure we’re investigating translates to tiny concentrations, in the parts-per-billion range for indoor air,” said Thiboldeaux. “And we’re trying to determine whether even these-low-risk contaminations are present,” he added. Additionally, the toxicologist pointed out, the risk of exposure is minimal compared to other risks we confront in our daily lives such as from drinking or smoking. Thiboldeaux said that there are three possible “routes” of exposure to contaminants at the Johnson Controls site– through contact with groundwater, through direct contact with contaminated soil, and through evaporation of contaminated groundwater through the soil and into houses. Grzezinski, Thiboldeaux, and others emphasized that residents who border the site are drinking treated municipal water, not groundwater. Both Thiboldeaux and Dennis Reis, Johnson Controls’ consulting attorney, said that the residents are not likely to be in direct contact with contaminated soil, given that the site was excavated to 7-11 feet below the surface in 1999. “Groundwater samples from the back yards of the Auer Avenue residents also suggest that solvent vapors are not migrating toward those homes,” Thiboldeaux said. “However, we’d like to see more direct evidence before drawing a firm conclusion.” Paul Biedrzycki, Manager of the City of Milwaukee Health Department’s Disease Control and Prevention Division, said staff from his department helped review and interpret environmental data provided by Johnson Controls’ consultants and will help coordinate any risk communication between the state and the residents around the site. Biedrzycki said that it is not clear, after reviewing the limited environmental data from the site, if the migration is impacting any residential properties surrounding the site. While Biedrzycki said the residents on Auer Ave. and in the immediate vicinity of the site do not face an immediate health risk based on the review of current environmental data, he does strongly agree with the DNR’s and DFHS’s conclusion that more investigation of the site is necessary to better characterize possible vapor migration pathways to offsite properties. DNR hydrogeologist Pam Mylotta commented on the limited amount of groundwater flowing off of the site. “It’s not like we have these rushes of groundwater– this is a trickle, which is more typical in a clay environment like we have here.” Mylotta also said that vapors from volatile compounds in groundwater are in most cases not readily absorbed into residences through five or more feet of soil, where the groundwater often starts. (Reis and Mylotta both said the presence of utility corridors underneath Bremen Street, Weil Street, and Concordia Avenue seems to prevent contaminants from crossing into the abutting properties bordering those streets. However, there is not a utility corridor running underneath the alley that separates the backyards of the Auer Avenue residents from the Johnson Controls site.) Although Mylotta agrees that residents don’t face any immediate risks, she did request, in a letter to Johnson Controls last November, the installation of permanent wells both onsite and offsite to measure data year-round. “This is good screening data, but it’s only one point in time,” Mylotta said regarding the consultant’s 2001 report. In the same letter Myolotta also requested that Johnson Controls provide the DNR with more information including groundwater location and contaminant distribution. Mylotta said that Johnson Controls at this point needs to address her concerns and complete the site investigation. “They jumped ahead and did some remediation, which is not at all unusual, but they are still in a site investigation phase. They need to define the conditions at the site and complete that assessment.” Reis said Johnson Controls is responding to Mylotta’s requests and has retained a firm to conduct additional investigations this spring. He expects additional clean-up will probably be necessary to reduce the contamination on the west side. Reis said remediation could include planting trees and using underground trenches to drain and isolate groundwater contaminants where they can be neutralized or siphoned. “As in the past, we will let the residents know what is going to happen and when,” Reis said. Johnson Controls sent residents letters in 1998, 1999, and 2001 concerning investigations and remediation. Third District Ald. Michael D’Amato, who expressed interest in developing residential housing in the area after the state approves of remediation measures (see “Potential Housing Development on the Johnson Controls Site“), has called Johnson Controls “a tremendous corporate citizen,” emphasizing its compliance with state law at this site and two other sites it held in the neighborhood. “I don’t think it’s premature,” Mylotta said when questioned about the city’s interest in developing the site before the investigation is finalized. “It’s useful to have those kinds of discussions, because the investigation will begin to be steered towards the remedies, which are strongly affected by the final site use.” Thibodeux said that his agency and the DNR will not approve any development plans unless Johnson Controls demonstrates that their site meets the standards described in the state administrative code. Continued Concern by Residents Several Auer Avenue residents remain concerned about potential effects of the contamination on both their health and the value of their properties. Cathy Blaski said she is concerned about groundwater coming into her basement if the ground were ever to become oversaturated with water. “We could be breathing that in, so of course I’m concerned about that.” Although Blaski and the Auer Avenue residents interviewed for this article did not report flooding or excess water in their basements, their attorney Dennis Grzezinksi said they could have basement air tests done to check for contamination. “If there is water in the basements, it’s probably rainwater–you’re probably 98 percent likely to find nothing. But… if it’s the one or two percent prospect that it is something, then you put a fan in the basement and vent that stuff to the outside.” Carol Tanner, who attended a meeting with Blaski and most of the other Auer Avenue residents at the Johnson Controls offices in Milwaukee in June 2001, said she is worried about the prospect of selling her house in the future. “When you’ve got contamination there, who’s going to buy it?” Tanner said in a recent interview. “I think they should reimburse the people who have contamination under their property, or clean it up or do something.” Tanner, a 75-year-old who raised eight sons here, has lived in her Auer Avenue home for over fifty years. “My savings from all these years is in my house,” added Tanner. “I don’t dare put money into it, since some of the contamination is under my garage in back.” John Strege, owner of the Riverwest Tavern on the corner of Auer and Bremen, also thinks he should be compensated. “This definitely caused me a lot of crap I didn’t expect,” he said. Strege has put more than $50,000 into refurbishing the tavern and the three apartments in the building since he purchased it in October 2000, only to find himself worrying about the value of his property plummeting. Johnson Controls’ consulting attorney Dennis Reis said residents at the 2001 meeting were told that the company “is committed to taking care of the problems in whatever way makes sense.” He said Johnson Controls informed residents about the results of past investigations and solicited residents’ feedback at meetings and afterwards from their attorney. Concerning residents’ worries with their properties, Reis said recently that Johnson Controls “would expect to hear from them” if they did have any trouble selling their homes in the near future. “But hopefully the things we do in the next couple of months will address that anyways,” Reis added. “We’ll be waiting for the state on what’s left to be done investigation-wise.” Related Story: » Potential Housing Development on the Johnson Controls Site Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003

Related Story: » Potential Housing Development on the Johnson Controls Site Toxics Release Inventory Program

Established by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program was expanded by the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. Operating under the aegis of the Environmental Protection Agency, the TRI Program allows United States residents access to information on the types of chemicals held within their communities, and equally importantly, what types of chemical are released in close proximity to their communities annually. Using the TRI Explorer search engine available online at the site, individuals can search by entering a zipcode, or by state or county as well. Additionally, individuals can search by chemical type; industry type; and year of data, which currently extends back to 1988. Also, individuals can access waste transfer and waste quantity reports, which are also searchable by region and waste type. Visitors to the site can also examine an entire list of chemicals covered by the TRI program, as well as find out about state TRI programs. [KMG] From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout Project 1994-2002.

A Brief History of the Johnson Controls Site

Johnson Controls produced expander material for automotive batteries at the site from the mid-70s through the mid-80s. Globe Union, which was acquired by Johnson Controls in 1978, had manufactured radio and electrical components there from 1944 until the mid 70s. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) became aware of contamination at the site in 1995. According to the state’s “Spill Law,” Johnson Controls was required to notify the DNR and restore the environment “to the extent practical.” They were also required to send the DNR documents outlining their plans for investigating and remediating, or cleaning up the site. In 1998, ENTACT, Inc., a company contracted by Johnson Controls, pulled down a building in the center of the site and removed an underground chemical storage tank near the southern end. ENTACT also removed a large concrete slab along with the asphalt parking surface covering much of the lot. The environmental engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) performed groundwater investigations in August of 1998. In the fall of the following year, ENTACT, Inc. removed over 9,100 tons of soil on the site and replaced it with clean fill, topsoil, and seed. (Approximately one-fifth of the soil was returned to the ground at the site after it had been heat and steam treated. The rest was disposed of at landfills in Muskego and Peoria, IL.) Reports filed at the DNR by MWH state that the soil was excavated to depths between seven and 11 feet, or three feet below the water table. Johnson Controls, a multi-national company headquartered in Milwaukee, is currently the largest North American manufacturer of private-label lead-acid automotive batteries. In addition to batteries, the company designs and produces dashboards, electronics, and interiors for automobiles and control systems to monitor security, power and interior environmental conditions for schools, hospitals, and office buildings, including the Sears Tower in Chicago. The Contamination Continues Within the last five years Johnson Controls sold two of its other properties in the Riverwest area. In 1998 the company sold a site at 3713 N. Humboldt to Tremont. Johnson Controls formerly used this property to produce valves for temperature control equipment and is now involved in a minor cleanup project on the west side of the property involving solvent contamination. Johnson Controls agreed to the cleanup prior to selling the property. Johnson Controls also sold a battery-production facility at 900 E. Keefe in 1999 to C & D Technologies, a company that specializes in the production of industrial batteries. This company is ranked one of the worst polluters in the county by, an environmental watchdog site. C& D Technologies puts out the second highest amount of non-cancer causing waste and the seventh highest amount of cancer-causing waste in Milwaukee County.

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