When plans for the Community Within the Corridor began taking shape at the former Briggs & Stratton complex at 32nd and Center streets on Milwaukee’s northwest side, developers, local officials and area residents regarded the project as a hard-won success story, a jewel amidst a largely neglected neighborhood in need of quality, affordable housing.
Little attention was paid by both the media and local officials to what impact previous manufacturing activity at the former engine plant site might have on the $68.5 million mixed-use development, which aimed at turning the 380,000-square-foot industrial campus into a 197-unit apartment development with commercial, community and recreation spaces for residents and neighbors.
As developers Scott Crawford Inc., Minnesota-based Roers Cos., and their environmental consultant KSingh & Associates worked with the DNR on plans to remediate and mitigate any residuals from the property’s former industrial life, would-be residents and project boosters were largely unaware that lingering chemicals could impact their health, or even force them from their newfound homes.
That was until March 24 when more than 150 residents of the East Block of the complex were evacuated after city Health Department officials learned that air in some occupied and unoccupied portions of the building contained concentrations of the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) that were nearly 200 times above the acceptable “vapor action level” of 2.1 micrograms per cubic meter.
Found in the chlorinated cleaning agents often used to clean metal, TCE can be carcinogenic over long-term exposures, but it poses the highest threat to pregnant women, since acute exposures can lead to fetal heart defects.
In the weeks since, media reports drawing on statements from city officials and publicly available correspondence between the developers’ environmental consultant and the state show that the DNR – which had pushed for several more months for vapor testing in the East Block – had been unaware until late March that people were living in that portion of the property.
While any potential fallout from that revelation remains to be seen, developers say they are working hard to address the contamination problem by modifying the building’s vapor mitigation system (VMS).
Like a radon mitigation system, the VMS is designed to suck any TCE vapors that might emanate from the ground into pipes that are supposed to push the contaminated air into the atmosphere and away from living spaces.
“Over the past several weeks, the (VMS) serving the development’s East Block building has been augmented with additional air blowing capacity, while third-party environmental engineering and remediation teams are addressing the underlying issues and conducting regular testing of air quality throughout the building,” said developers in an April 17 statement.
Those efforts appear to be having some impact on the problem, but a weekly report submitted by a consultant to the DNR showed levels in many parts of the East Block to still be well above the 2.1 micrograms per cubic meter action level. One first-floor unit had a TCE level as high as 236.6 micrograms per cubic meter on April 13, for instance. And tests done on April 14 showed only one part of the building – a third-floor hallway – with a TCE level below the vapor action level.
Noting that it is “difficult to predict” when East Block residents will be able to return to their apartments, the developers say they are “committed to making that happen as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, they say they are working to help East Block residents with any needs they may have, including free hotel accommodations or stipends for other alternative housing, waiving rent and utility costs and refunding all past rent paid by the tenants.
“The Community Within the Corridor remains a viable development,” they added.
For all the problems unmitigated TCE vapors can create, Trevor Nobile, a field operations director with the DNR, said the chemical is a common one at redevelopment sites and can often be successfully mitigated, including in residential buildings.
TCE vapors were also found in the West Block of the development before development occurred, Nobile noted, but the VMS installed there has required far less modifications to keep operating effectively, Nobile said.
As long as remediation is done right, sites with TCE contamination can be “extremely safe,” Nobile said.