Wausau Residents Sue Over Chemical Contamination

By: John DesRivieres Email
By: John DesRivieres Email

Many Wausau residents may remember the Crestline Windows factory. Formerly located near the 3M plant off Thomas Street, Crestline built windows and doors for nearly 50 years in Wausau's River Street neighborhood. Now, the people who live, and used to live around here believe the plant is responsible for damage to their health, property, even causing death in some cases.

From 1946 to 1986, a product known as Penta was commonly used at the Crestline plant.

Penta contains hazardous chemicals, including dioxins, which are classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

During those 40 years, it's alleged in the lawsuit filed, Penta was routinely spilled and discharged into the environment, contaminating the air, soil, and groundwater in the River Street neighborhood.

Dale Grosskurth, the Marathon County Environmental Health and Safety Director says, the people most affected by Penta exposure would be plant workers and those who live close by.

"Obviously the longer you're exposed to something, the greater your risk would be, but you also have to consider, what is the level of exposure. So you may be exposed to something at a very low level for a long period of time and it not be a problem, whereas somebody else, a high level for a short period of time could be a problem", said Grosskurth.

All that remains at the Crestline site today is one building and a field containing several small wells.

Those wells were used by the Department of Natural Resources to extract Penta from the ground.

The DNR has been involved at the site since the mid 80's.

According to state documents, nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta has been removed from the ground since 1990.

In March of this year, recovery operations were stopped because officials believe, the majority of the Penta is now gone.

"They have multiple recovery wells out there and it was slowly dwindling down to where only a few wells were recovering product. Then in the last year, that amount has dropped to where sometimes none of the wells were recovering product", said Lisa Gutknecht, Hydrogeologist for the DNR.

Wauleco Incorporated is the current owner of the Crestline site.
The company is a subsidiary of Sentry Insurance, based in Stevens Point.

In 2008, six River Street neighborhood residents sued Wauleco, alleging personal injury and property damage caused by the release of chemicals into the environment.By the time the lawsuit hit Marathon County Court in 2009, more than 140 plaintiffs were involved.

According to Ted Warpinski, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, many of them say they developed Cancer and other illnesses from exposure to Penta and the poisonous Dioxins contained within.

"There are probably 30 cases of cancer. The primary driver behind most of the illnesses would be the presence of dioxins in the surface soils around the neighborhood that people would have inhaled and ingested over time, just from living in the area", said Warpinski, attorney with the Milwaukee based law firm, Friebert, Finerty and St. John.

Court documents show that six of the claims are from estates, filed on the behalf of people who are now deceased.Their loved ones believe the chemical exposures ultimately caused their deaths.

In all, 71 of the 144 plaintiffs are claiming their health or their property has been severely damaged, but what makes this case unprecedented in Wisconsin are the remaining 73 plaintiffs.

They are people not showing any current illnesses, but say they've been exposed to Penta as well.

Their attorneys believe they're entitled to medical monitoring expenses to help screen for the onset of future diseases.

"We believe that's an appropriate claim to be made in a case like this, where you have a known polluter that has polluted the area and as a matter of public health and policy, it makes sense for that polluter to pay for that medical monitoring than for an individual to pay for it themselves", said Warpinski.

In 2009, attorneys for Wauleco moved to dismiss the claims of those 73 plaintiffs. In 2010, a trial court upheld the dismissal and now attorneys for the plaintiffs are asking the state Supreme Court to take a look at the case.

A Wisconsin court has never ruled on medical monitoring claims before and the final ruling would set precedent for all similar cases in the future.

"We call it a case of first impression and that's why we've addressed it to the Supreme Court. If we're gonna have a rule on this, it should be decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on an issue like this", said Warpinski.

If the Supreme Court decides not to take the case, the lawsuit will move forward with the 71 plaintiffs claiming personal injury and property damages.

The plaintiffs' attorneys filed their petition on July 14th.

They expect to know whether or not the Supreme Court will take the case within the next month or two.

The DNR says if any Penta is still in that area, the levels today are so low, they're no longer harmful to people.

Over the years, several courts in other states have ruled on medical monitoring claims, in some cases money was rewarded, in other cases it was not.

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