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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Contamination Cleanup In Milwaukee’s Harbor District Has People Worried About Toxic Gas Emissions

Susan Bence
A glimpse of the former Solvay site. We Energies Bob Greco says most of the heavy remediation is happening north (to the right) of the piles seen in this photo.

Updated on Aug. 19, at 12:55 p.m CT
UW-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences reports that We Energies has installed carbon filters on air handlers that serve the south wing of the school, which is where most people work. Filters weren’t installed in the north building, but the school will be monitoring whether odors are detected there.

Earlier in August, the Environmental Protection Agency informedthe school that contractors carrying out the environmental cleanup have modified their treatment processes to reduce nuisance odors.

Original story  

There’s an environmental cleanup underway at an old manufacturing site in Milwaukee’s Harbor District. And some people say there’s something in the air that’s making them ill.

Solvay Coke & Gas Company long stood abandoned on East Greenfield Avenue. But decades before, it was a humming operation. Now, Komatsu Mining Corp wants to build on the 46-acre parcel. First, it must undergo an intensive environmental cleanup.

UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences is just a three-minute stroll east of the site. Ph.D. student Nicholas Niemuth was busy in one of the school’s labs a few weeks ago when he said he began to feel sick.

“We had smelled the smell, which is like a mothball smell, for at least a month. But on July 16, I felt sick,” Niemuth says.

Credit Susan Bence
Ph.D. student Nicholas Niemuth spends a lot of time working in this lab on the second floor of the School of Freshwater Sciences. This is where he began to feel symptoms he believes were caused by exposure to napthalene released at the nearby contamination cleanup site.

He says he was lightheaded and nauseated even after he left the lab. “I had a headache that lasted until the following day,” he says.

Others at the school reported similar symptoms.

The odor is caused by naphthalene. It’s a contaminant and a remnant of coke production that took place at the old Solvay plant. For decades, until 1983, the heavy industrialized site produced coke. It’s a fuel created by heating coal at high temperatures in an airtight oven.

Over the years, coal tar leaked from tanks and equipment, permeating the ground below. The cleanup going on now includes stabilizing the coal tar.

"I had a headache that lasted until the following day." - Nicholas Niemuth

Niemuth works in scientist Rebecca Klaper’s lab. Klaper says because the school is near the Jones Island wastewater treatment facility, everyone’s used to “nuisance smells” — but this is different.

“Two weeks ago, I was working in my office and I thought my computer was on fire so a shut it off. But then other faculty gathered saying they smelled it too ... We realized it came from down the street,” Klaper says.

She's worried about her colleagues, students and their research.

“It’s probably impacting our experiments too and the animals in the building. And you can’t move them, they’re in tanks of water. I don’t know where we would move our experiments,” she says.

Credit Susan Bence
The entrance of the cleanup site on East Greenfield Avenue.

“There were two meetings within a week. That’s encouraging, but we don’t have an idea of solutions that will be put in place and we continue to smell emissions from the site. I’ve talked with other folks who do environmental cleanups like this and they do it in cold weather so you don’t have this huge vapor rising of chemicals going into the air and disturbing people who are in the area,” Klaper says.

But Bob Greco says there’s no good time for the work. He’s director of environmental air quality and projects with We Energies. The utility bought the Solvay property in 2017 and is responsible for its cleanup.

“The equipment freezes in winter and it’s a very water intensive process. Basically we’re mixing slurry with cement and pumping it 1,000 feet across the site in fire hoses,” he says.

"There were two meetings within a week. That's encouraging, but we don't have an idea of solutions that will be put in place and we continue to smell emissions from the site." - Rebecca Klaper

Greco says by injecting cement and slurry into coal tar, what he describes as the primary contaminant of concern on the site, the contaminant is frozen in place. "So, it won’t leach in water and won’t go anywhere,” he adds.

Naphthalene is released in the process. Greco says the byproduct of the coal tar process has lots naphthalene but not at levels harmful to human health. He says he's confident of that because of comprehensive air monitoring – starting with each worker at the work site.

“They wear personal air monitors. The work site has monitors and then the site has eight parameter monitors around the edge that are looking at what’s leaving the site,” he says.

Depending on which way the wind is blowing, Greco says people inside the School of Freshwater Sciences might smell what he acknowledges is an unpleasant odor. "[But] there’s no health effects from the data that we have at the site,” Greco repeats.

Nevertheless, Greco says We Energies wants to allay concerns among people at the School of Freshwater Sciences. One measure might be putting filters on the school’s air intakes.

“We’re talking about installing charcoal filters because they remove the VOCs,” Greco says. VOC stands for volatile organic compounds — gases that are emitted into the air — in this case during the contaminated site cleanup. Greco is adding measures there too.

“We’re adding additional generic odor control at the site as early as tomorrow, some misting systems to knock down some of the odor also,” Greco says.

Niemuth – one of the people at the School of Freshwater Sciences who said the odor made him sick – wonders if additional steps should be taken.

He’s been doing lots of research since his personal experience with naphthalene. He read about a Superfund clean-up project in New Jersey. After months of public outcry a tent was recently erected over the work site to reduce emissions into the air.

Niemuth says for the time being, he’ll be keeping a close watch on which way the wind is blowing.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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