Recession worsens brownfields backlog in Wisconsin

OAK CREEK — Sarah Preciado, a lifelong resident of the Carrollville neighborhood, remembers how it was once a bustling place. Her great-grandfather was the first Mexican worker at the glue factory that was across Fifth Avenue. Her grandfather, who planted the pear and peach trees at her house, worked there too.
But the glue factory is long gone, along with a chemical plant, aluminum smelter and other factories from the past century. Now dilapidated buildings in overgrown lots sprawl across 260 acres, where the soil and groundwater are polluted with arsenic, chromium, lead and other chemicals, and some fences gape from vandals’ gashes.
Preciado said the abandoned properties have blighted her neighborhood.
“Now I worry about my kids,” she said. “This area has changed so much.”
Known by its historic name, Carrollville, the site — on Lake Michigan’s edge, just south of Milwaukee — is one of the largest of Wisconsin’s brownfields, properties that are abandoned or underused because of contamination or the threat of it.
Contamination at brownfields usually doesn’t rise to the level of Superfund sites, so they don’t get Superfund-level attention. Still, they may harm people and the environment, reduce tax revenue, keep communities from developing and attract vandals and dumping.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are anywhere from 450,000 to 1 million brownfields nationwide. But that count is far from firm — EPA’s database lists just 17,000 records — and the agency doesn’t track the nation’s progress on brownfields.

Sarah Preciado has lived in this house, in Oak Creek's Carrollville neighborhood, her whole life. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were the first Mexican workers at the glue factory across the street. Now the factories are closed and fenced off, the bustle is gone, and Preciado says the complex has blighted the neighborhood. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates there are 10,000 brownfields in Wisconsin, with a disproportionate number in poor and rural neighborhoods — the places least likely to have the resources to clean them up.
Here, in what’s sometimes called the industrial rust belt, many of these sites date back to the early 1900s, during the state’s early manufacturing history.
But while the state has made some progress with the backlog in the past two decades, the situation may be worsening.
A “startling” number of plant closings during the recent recession, 109 since 2009, has created “an entirely new generation of brownfields,” according to a 2011 DNR grant application for federal brownfields funding.
DNR’s brownfields chief, Darsi Foss, said progress is being made. The agency has a new initiative to deal with newly closing plants before they become 20-year-old abandoned sites.
But it will take decades to find and clean up all the brownfields.
“Resources are tough to come by right now,” she said.

A 2008 state health consultation found "well-worn footpaths" and many holes in the fence leading to the former Hynite fertilizer and Peter Cooper glue factories, part of a 260-acre complex of brownfields in Oak Creek's Carrollville neighborhood. The fence still has plenty of holes, four years later. Photo Sept. 11, 2012. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Investigation reveals flaws in system
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was among five nonprofit news organizations probing federal and state agencies’ handling of brownfields.
The investigation, coordinated by the Investigative News Network, found that despite more than $1.5 billion in federal grants and loans doled out over 19 years, brownfields cleanups nationwide remain hobbled by limited funds, a lack of federal oversight, endless waits for approvals and dense bureaucratic processes that make it difficult for poor and sparsely populated neighborhoods to compete against larger and middle-class communities with the means to figure them out.
In a written response, the EPA said the program “is not intended to address all of the brownfield sites in the U.S.”
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Click to browse brownfields in a new window.
Federal data neither fully assess the problem nor how Wisconsin compares to other states. The EPA generally only tracks the brownfields it has funded, leaving out thousands of sites that have been identified by state and local governments.
The EPA doesn’t audit the data, which are reported by grant recipients.
A Center analysis found that even the limited information in EPA’s database is riddled with errors and omissions. For instance, many of the latitudes and longitudes described locations in China and Kyrgyzstan.
The Office of the Inspector General criticized EPA’s “lack of oversight and reliance on environmental professionals’ self-certifications” in a 2011 report. That approach means contamination at sites might not be fully assessed, which could lead to “improper decisions about appropriate uses of brownfields properties.”
“Ultimately, threats to human health and the environment could go unrecognized,” the report said.

Despite the no-trespassing sign, it's easy enough to get through poorly maintained fences to the former Hynite fertilizer factory, owned by Fifth Property LLC, as vandals have shown. The soil and groundwater are contaminated with lead, arsenic, chromium and other toxic chemicals, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Photo Sept. 11, 2012. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Factories left contamination
From the early 1900s until the 1980s, manufacturing at Carrollville included not only the glue and gelatin plant but a dye and chemical factory, a fertilizer factory, an aluminum smelter, a distillery, a coal-tar factory and a wood-treating site.
Despite living across the street from the complex her whole life, Preciado hadn’t heard much about the pollution there. Most of it is hidden behind greenery and fences; DNR project manager Eric Amadi guessed that was why there had been little public outcry.
At one end of the site, where the former Peter Cooper glue and Hynite fertilizer factories are, the present public risk from the chemicals is “indeterminate,” according to a 2008 state health consultation, “but limited field screening and the history of past industrial activities suggest substantial environmental contamination may be present.”
The report noted the presence of many physical hazards there and “well-worn footpaths” leading through holes in the fence. The biggest public health hazards were to trespassers.
“Kids were going in there after school to hang out,” Amadi said.
The problems in the entire complex have included what was known as the “arsenic landfill” — most of which was removed by the EPA, though some arsenic remains; toxic coal tar that was oozing out of the ground; various cancer-causing chemicals, both vaporous and persistent; and unknown chemical compounds with uncertain health effects. At one point, a monitoring well installed by DNR dissolved, Amadi said.
The aquifer, which fortunately flows toward Lake Michigan and not toward public wells, will probably never be usable, according to DNR.
The land has been bought and sold and resold. Amadi is working with seven owners, who have displayed varying levels of interest in cleaning up the contamination.
The cleanup is progressing, to varying degrees at each site. Old fire insurance maps, corporate filings and other records have largely straightened out who is responsible.
The city of Oak Creek has bought some of the land and plans to transform the space. But its vision of green space and mixed use is years away.
Four years after the state health assessment, grapevines have replaced some of the barbed wire, while the old Hynite factory on the hill is colorful with graffiti.
Parts of the site have been listed on the Internet as a point of interest for ghost hunters and urban spelunkers.
Across Fifth Avenue from the defunct Wabash Alloys aluminum smelter on a sunny August day, Milan “Mike” Zoric was painting the old Bender Park Pub. Like Preciado, he remembers this place booming decades ago. Unlike Preciado, he was betting the area would come back.
But three weeks later, Zoric was gone. Maria “Chayo” Cobian, who owns the building, said he was the second renter not to work out recently. Like Preciado, her cousin, Cobian is hoping the area will bounce back. She thought redeveloping the Carrollville site would help.
“I mean, look how ugly it is!” she said, gesturing toward the old smelter.

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