ASHLAND, Wis. — A few times in his 18 years as an Ashland wastewater treatment plant employee, when a water main broke, John Radloff would find himself wading in oily water. The slick, which came up every time the plant employees dug down, looked and smelled like heavy used oil.
It got on their clothes, boots and skin. It was a nuisance. But they worked at a wastewater plant. They were used to foul stuff.
“We often wondered if this was anything that could harm us in the long run, but we don’t know,” says Radloff, who worked at the plant until 1992. That’s when the city decided the industrial waste below would make upgrading the plant too hazardous and boarded it up.
Today the area around the old plant is the lush green expanse of Kreher Park, located in the center of this city of 8,453 people. It’s also a Superfund site covering thousands of gallons of gooey black tar and millions of gallons of groundwater contaminated by compounds that are known to cause cancer.
It’s a legacy of Ashland’s industrial past — in the middle of its downtown Lake Superior waterfront — that is still years away from being cleaned up. In September, after 21 years of state and federal scrutiny, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its final plan for a cleanup estimated to cost at least $100 million.
According to state and federal officials, the primary culprit for the tar was a manufactured gas plant, which operated here from 1885 to 1947 atop a bluff overlooking the park. The finding is disputed by Xcel Energy, which has been named potentially responsible for the cleanup at the site, which it acquired in 1986.
Utility officials say some of the pollution may be from old lumber operations. The company also blames the city of Ashland, saying construction of the wastewater treatment plant on the site may have pushed some of the contamination into Lake Superior.
Thousands of manufactured gas plants like Ashland’s dotted the urban landscape of the nation for 150 years. MGPs, as they’re often now called, heated coal or fuel oil to make gas that lit streets and heated buildings. The waste they produced, known as coal tar, is a complex, toxic mixture of hundreds or thousands of chemicals such as benzene and napthalene.
Every major community had one, according to Allen Hatheway, a Missouri geological engineer and MGP expert. He says the Ashland site is “monstrously polluted” compared to the 43 other known sites in Wisconsin, only nine of which have been cleaned up.
But assigning blame decades after the plants shut down can be difficult. The federal government will decide who should pay for the cleanup; Xcel has said it may sue if it’s found fully liable for the costs.
“We’ve recognized that we’re 100 percent responsible for the waste and the contamination on top of the bluff,” says David Donovan, the company’s regulatory policy manager. “But we believe that there’s others responsible for the contamination at other parts of the site, and we believe that they should have to pay for that.”
Pep Kabasa, 63, and her husband, Joe, 70, have lived most of their lives on the bluff, a few hundred feet from the old gas plant. As children, they swam in Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay where tar balls still sometimes appear. They played on the tar pit below the bluff. Some, including Joe, even chewed the tar, since it was cheaper than gum.
Don’t say ‘coal tar.’ The first draft for the signs, in the 1990s, was more explicit about the source of the contamination in Ashland’s downtown waterfront. “Hazardous coal tar on bottom.” But Xcel Energy “had a strong reaction” to the term, according to Kim Bro, a former state official who developed the signage — so he changed it to “oil & tar substance.” “I figured that still said to the public what they needed to know,” Bro says.
Now the Kabasa home is surrounded on three sides by a Superfund site. Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church and School are on the site. Boating, wading and swimming are forbidden in the 16 acres of Chequamegon Bay with contaminated sediments.
Every now and then, a whiff of tar, like somebody paving a driveway, wafts over from the old gasworks, where Xcel is running a test project pumping and treating contaminated water from the aquifer below. The company has spent $19 million so far to clean up the site.
As a young man, Joe Kabasa got cancer, and Pep, who was then a young bride of 17, nursed him through harsh radiation treatments. Her father died of cancer, her mother and sister have had double mastectomies, and she has had tumors. Joe Kabasa doesn’t believe the old gas plant is to blame, but his wife remains unsure — and uneasy.
As the Superfund process revealed the contamination all around her, Pep Kabasa pressed the experts with questions they could not answer. They say the cause of any one person’s cancer can’t be linked to the contamination.
“I want an answer, because I have grandchildren, and my children live here,” she says. “Cancer scares me. And if this is the cause, get rid of it.”
But this much is known: When the compounds in the tar are combined with sunlight, they are “a very potent carcinogen” on skin, says Kim Bro, a health risk analyst who conducted the site’s first health risk assessment in 1995 for the state. Signs along the beach warn, “Should this oil and tar substance come into contact with skin, wash off immediately with soap and warm water.”
The EPA’s cleanup plan calls for removing thousands of tons of tarry soil and roasting it at a high temperature until it’s safe to put back. The groundwater in two aquifers will be pumped, treated and discharged to the lake. The most expensive part will be removing the contaminated sediments from Lake Superior, either by dredging or draining the bay dry and removing the dirt.
Radloff, 62, has already had skin cancer. He is fair-skinned and worked in the sun on a farm as a kid. He can’t point the finger at the gas plant. But he said many of his coworkers at the wastewater plant got cancer before they died.
A northerly wind coming through Chequamegon Bay kicks up the lighter compounds in the century-old tars, which form a slick on the water. The slick smells like insecticide and burns the throat, says hydrogeologist Jamie Dunn, DNR project manager. The sediments are expected to be the most difficult and expensive portion of the cleanup.
George Grosjean and his wife, Diane Grosjean, sued Xcel Energy in 2002 over health problems from his exposure to contaminants from the MGP site, according to Xcel’s financial filings. They settled out of court before the 2004 trial date.
George Grosjean is now dead, and neither Xcel nor Diane Grosjean would discuss the case, citing a nondisclosure agreement.
Says Radloff: “It concerns me. It concerns my wife. It concerns all of us that worked down there.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media. Kate Golden may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Freelance reporters Marissa Monson and Stephanie Lulay contributed to this report.