City of Madison addresses contamination concerns at former Oscar Mayer campus

Madison residents are raising the alarm about proposed developments of affordable housing on part of the former Oscar Mayer plant.
Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 9:58 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2023 at 10:27 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Madison residents are raising the alarm about proposed developments of affordable housing on part of the former Oscar Mayer plant, expressing concern over contamination in the ground. The city and the DNR say they hear them, and they are taking the right steps to redevelop the property safely.

“When Oscar Meyer shut. It wasn’t... it was an audible silence. It was an audible lack of air pollution and people were hopeful,” North side resident Beth Sluys said.

After operating on Madison’s north side for almost 100 years, the Oscar Mayer plant closed its doors for good in 2017. Now, the Hartmeyer property on part of the former Oscar Mayer campus has been approved by the city for the development of about 550 apartments for seniors and low-income families.

“Nothing should happen on any of that land until we know the impact on residential housing,” Sluys said.

It’s not the idea of new affordable housing on the site that concerns Sluys, the concern comes from what’s underground.

“There’s some petroleum contamination and then the shallow contamination in the soil is mostly some heavy metals, arsenic and a little bit of lead and something called PAHs,” City of Madison Hydrogeologist Brynn Bemis said.

Bemis said the contamination is being addressed. The first step is understanding where it came from. An Environmental Site Assessment Phase I outlines the history of the site and contamination.

“There were two 250,000 gallon that’s very large tanks that were above ground, but they had some below ground piping, that piping leaked,” Bemis said.

Contamination also came from decades of use as a meat packing plant and above ground coal storage. Neighbors are asking if the land is even safe for human habitation.

“Is the land safe for people of all ages and vulnerabilities? So, we’re putting families Children, seniors can they actually live on it?” Sherman Neighborhood Association Co-Chair Jeff Argelander said.

The Wisconsin Department of Resources says it is safe.

“I think once the final plans are in place, and we kind of have an understanding of what the final development will look like, we’ll be sure to make sure that it’s protective of human health in the environment,” Wisconsin DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Program Supervisor Issac Ross said.

Ross said the purpose of the program within the DNR is to hold developers of contaminated sites, or brownfields, accountable.

“We’re with them from start to finish to make sure that those redevelopment activities are protective,” Ross said.

According to the DNR and Bemis, step two is testing, which they say is done. Now, the final step before any ground is broken, the developer must submit a Material Management Plan to the DNR.

“And that’s just a plan that explains every area of material is removed from the property, is it going to have to go to a landfill is that soil that can remain on site does that soil need to be capped or is that clean?” Bemis said.

She said the goal of capping is keeping the contaminants away from people.

“That’s an impervious surface, typically a parking lot sidewalks, and that’ll ensure that there’s no direct contact issues between individuals on the property and contaminated soil,” Ross said.

Still, neighbors say their concern come from just wanting the best for all of their current and future neighbors.

“I want to make sure that the property is safe, because this is important,” Sluys said.

Right now, the developer, Lincoln Avenue Capitol, has not submitted their Material Management Plan to the DNR. The developer said they are working on finalizing the design of the building with the City of Madison.

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