By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media

Cleanup projects at an unknown number of chemical spills in Wisconsin skipped a key step — investigating whether carcinogenic chemicals could seep as vapor into nearby homes or businesses, a Gannett Wisconsin Media review has found.

Those responsible for cleanup at these sites are supposed to study the environmental and human impact of pollutants that can spread through the soil to nearby properties, similar to the way radon spreads.

But last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources became so concerned that cleanup consultants weren’t checking for chemical vapors that the agency sent more than 2,500 notices about the problem to property owners.

A review of those properties found that many are just beginning to check for vapor intrusion. Regulators admit that hundreds of closed cleanup sites might never be checked unless owners want to add new construction or sell their properties.

The health effects of chemical vapors vary, but they can increase the risk of cancer or damage vital organs over time.

Gasoline or petroleum vapors, for example, can cause headaches, nausea and eye irritation, according to the state Department of Health.

The most dangerous fumes have no odor and are detectable only by expensive soil tests.

The spread of chemicals that cause vapor problems can go unnoticed for years, and regulators still are trying to educate cleanup consultants about the potential danger.

DNR officials said the 2,500 notices sent in September were prompted by a “noticeable” string of site owners applying for closure — official acknowledgment from regulators that no further action can or should be taken — without checking for vapor intrusion.

The DNR doesn’t track the reason why closure applications are denied, and no one at the agency could say how many sites failed to investigate the potential for harmful fumes to build up under buildings near contaminated sites and seep inside as those structures deteriorate over time.

Tired of excuses

Terry Evanson, director of the DNR’s vapor intrusion program, said the agency wanted to ensure site owners and cleanup consultants couldn’t claim to be ignorant of the requirement to check for chemicals moving as vapor through the ground and into buildings.

“In 2010, we published our final guidance for the state, so we’re into 2011 and people are telling us, ‘Oh, nobody ever told us,'” Evanson said. “We were getting tired of listening to that excuse, so we sent a letter to every site in the whole state.”

The DNR’s records provide glimpses of sites that have now begun investigating the potential for vapor problems, years after state officials began researching the issue.

» Lignotech USA, a chemical producer at Rothschild, was denied closure in 2010 partially for failing to completely investigate and address vapor intrusion as a result of a 1984 spill of sulfite liquor. Since then, testing has shown levels below EPA standards for industrial buildings for people expected to spend 40 hours a week in a contaminated building. Cleanup is ongoing at 100 Grand Ave.

» The former home of Waukesha Rubber Co., 324 W. College Ave., Waukesha, now houses a parking garage for students of Carroll College. The DNR refused in 2011 to close the diesel fuel-contaminated site without vapor test results. All parking garages are required to maintain a mitigation system for vehicle fumes, but the Waukesha garage’s system also addresses diesel vapors from a decades-old spill.

» A Manitowoc dry cleaner, United Laundries and Dry Cleaners, 623 Reed Ave., amended its cleanup plan for PERC in groundwater in December to include investigating fumes, three months after the DNR notices were sent. The closed dry cleaner and a neighboring Piggly Wiggly grocery store both have mitigation systems in place, and a neighboring apartment building is now being investigated for vapor problems.

» In 2006 and 2007, closure applications for the former Citgo gas station in Green Bay, 515 W. Walnut St., were denied partially because vapor hadn’t been investigated. Since then, one neighboring house received a mitigation system. The cleanup still is ongoing.

None of the incidences found in Wisconsin have risen to the level of making an EPA database. Still, even the possibility of harmful fumes contaminating a building can be devastating for homeowners.

Dream home turns into nightmare

Hardwood floors, built-in cabinetry and etched glass in the front windows convinced Deanna Schneider she had found her dream home on Madison’s east side in 1997.

She couldn’t miss the Madison-Kipp Corp. factory located just behind the house but was happy to tolerate noise for a lively mixed-use neighborhood.

In 2011, when the company and the DNR notified Schneider and two neighbors that chemicals might be moving into their basements as vapor, she felt blindsided. A single mom, Schneider feared for her 9-year-old son’s health.

“I was really angry,” she said. “I was shocked. I was very disheartened with the fact that they had been telling me everything was OK.”

In May 2011, Madison-Kipp tested the soil beneath Schneider’s basement for chemicals. They found 1,080 parts per billion of tetrachloroethylene in the heavy clay, far higher than the 6 ppb level that requires a mitigation system be installed.

Most commonly used as a dry-cleaning agent and known as PERC, the chemical was Madison-Kipp’s preferred degreaser for manufactured metal parts. The company suspended use of PERC in 1989.

The DNR forced Madison-Kipp to pay for a mitigation system, but that doesn’t alleviate fears.

No one in the neighborhood has reported illness that can be connected to the vapors and health officials haven’t recommended any medical tests for residents. Schneider still worries the years of living on Marquette Street will affect her or her son.

“There are a lot of kids who live on this block who’ve now been exposed to this from the day they were born,” Schneider said. “So when you think about the time period of exposure, it’s their entire lives. Any day longer is too long to not know what’s going on for some of these families.”

If a site owner or consultant determines that a chemical hasn’t reached or can’t reach neighboring properties, it’s unlikely that chemical vapors can ever cause health problems. And radon, a natural carcinogen that also enters homes through foundation cracks or utility lines, is more toxic than most chemical vapors.

But investigating vapor intrusion, whatever the pollutant, is intended to guard against a future problem as homes or other buildings’ foundations develop cracks or other spaces for chemical vapors to get inside and collect at harmful levels.

A one-time, fairly small spill of gasoline is unlikely to cause vapor intrusion problems down the line. Evanson said regulators are more concerned with long-standing industrial sites, dry cleaners and other businesses that used chemicals daily.

Those cleanups can take years, and many site owners are entirely dependent on consultants to explain the process and follow DNR rules.

‘It’s a long process’

Tom and Marilyn Berlin hope they can finally get the DNR’s approval for a cleanup at Twin Brook Cleaners in Plymouth after four years of work.

Several attempts to sell the property fell through, as potential buyers shied away from taking on the cleanup. The Berlins still were on the hook for property taxes and utility bills at the site, funds that could have been useful at two other dry cleaning businesses they own.

Marilyn and her late husband, John Walsh, owned and operated the business until 2008, and she and her current husband, Tom, have counted on their consulting firm, Alpha Terra Science, to direct the cleanup.

Alpha Terra began work at the site in 2008 and started investigating for pathways that chemical vapors could travel through in 2011, months before the DNR sent letters ordering sites to investigate for the problem.

Tom Berlin said any credit for being ahead of the curve belongs to the engineer managing the Twin Brook property.

“It’s a long process, a complicated process,” Tom Berlin said. “I have to rely on the engineers to tell me what we’re doing is right.”

Ken Lassa, environmental department manager for REI Engineering based in Wausau, said his firm and other consultants that handle site cleanups have been aware of vapor intrusion for at least 20 years. But firms have to compete for jobs, and some will try to take shortcuts, Lassa said.

“In any business, you’ve got people who are really good at their jobs and others who aren’t as good,” he said. “As consultants, we sometimes get beat up because some other consultant comes in and says they can do it cheaper. But they may not be looking at all the things that need to be looked at.”

Even when consultants or site owners properly investigate vapor intrusion, the DNR only approves closure at sites where vapors could be a problem with the condition that new construction could require more testing.

At the former home of Kerwin Paper Co. in Appleton, for example, tests found PERC and TCE in groundwater at the site.

Now the site of Eagle Flats Landing apartments, developers and the DNR designed a ventilation system to prevent vapors from causing health issues for residents.

Lassa said the number of sites forced to investigate and address vapor problems could increase as old contaminated properties are redeveloped.

“As properties are bought and sold and sometimes redeveloped, the issues are coming back,” Lassa said. “When the DNR closes these sites, they don’t ever say, ‘You’re closed forever and ever.’ There’s always a caveat, so if (the site) reopens, more work may have to be done.”

Most common spills
Three pollutants frequently tied to vapor intrusion can cause significant damage to human health over time.
» Other names: Perchloroethylene, PERC or PCE
» Used for: Solvent used in dry cleaning, wood processing, fabric manufacturing and metal degreasing.
» Side effects of long-term exposure: Increased risk of cancer, affects fetal development, liver and kidney damage.
» Other name: TCE
» Used for: Metal degreasing
» Side effects of long-term exposure: No consistent evidence of cancer in humans but liver, kidney, lung and testicular tumors and leukemia in animals.
» Used for: Industrial chemical found in crude oil, gasoline. Used to make plastic, resins, synthetic fibers, dyes and detergents.
» Side effects of long-term exposure: Increased risk of leukemia, anemia, weaken immune system; damage to reproductive organs and infertility in animals.
Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services