Ashland, Wisconsin is a small city along the coast of western Lake Superior. It was once a town that thrived on an industrial economy. Today the town is living with a legacy of pollution, and people are fighting over how to clean it up. Ashland’s mayor says he’s not giving up on the city’s future. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill has more:
Ashland, Wisconsin is a small city along the coast of western Lake Superior. It was once a town
that thrived on an industrial economy. Today the town is living with a legacy of pollution, and
people are fighting over how to clean it up. Ashland’s mayor says he’s not giving up on the city’s
future. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill has more:
Ashland, Wisconsin, sits on Chequamegon Bay. It’s a wide curve of gently sloping land on the
south shore of Lake Superior. There used to be a busy port here. Ships moved in and out, loaded
with iron ore, lumber, and coal.
But those ships are gone. Ashland’s industry is gone, and the town is trying to create an economy
based on tourism.
But the bay is polluted. The waves lapping gently on the shore carry a thin film of oily scum.
Bright yellow signs warn people not to wade in the water or run their boats in the bay. A year ago,
the EPA named this part of the bay a Superfund site.
It’s not the kind of place that’s likely to attract tourists. But that’s exactly what Ashland’s mayor
wants to do.
“This lakefront is really underdeveloped. And in a service-based economy like we’re at, we could
really be turning some money for our community here.”
Fred Schnook wants to double the size of the city marina. He wants to turn the old sewage
treatment plant into a museum.
“There could be retail shops, there could be a marine repair shop, to have all these boats that we
have here fixed.”
Ashland is within a short day’s drive of Chicago, Milwaukee, and other major Midwestern cities.
The tourism potential is huge.
But a gas plant polluted the bay years ago, and there’s no money to clean it up.
For seventy years, a company made gas to heat and light Ashland’s homes. Most cities had gas
plants like this. The raw material was coal or petroleum. By-products were tars and oils in
various thicknesses. Some of the waste was as solid as roofing tar, some was as runny as used
engine oil. The gas company sold some of the by-products to other industries. It dumped the rest
into Chequamegon Bay. The plant closed years ago.
“So we have the legacy of history.”
Jerry Winslow is an engineer with Xcel Energy, formerly called NSP. NSP bought the
manufactured gas plant in 1976. Now it’s used as a place to repair equipment.
Winslow says other industries along the bay, including a city landfill, added their own pollution
over the years.
“Manufactured gas plant being one issue. Wood treating being another issue with the same kind of
coal tar products. Landfill, which gets a little bit of everything.”
Because it owns the manufactured gas plant, Xcel will probably have to pay a big chunk of the
eventual clean-up cost. But Xcel says if the old city dump is part of the problem, Ashland itself
should bear some of the cost.
Eight years ago the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began studying the pollution
problems here. The tars and oils can cause cancer. And animal studies suggest they might cause
Xcel and the DNR worked together to cover places on land where the pollutants were bubbling to
the surface. And Xcel is slowly pumping the tars out of the deep aquifer that runs under the old
coal plant and into the bay.
The problem right now is the bay itself. The pollutants have settled on the bottom, and whenever
there’s a northeast wind, they get churned up and rise to the surface.
Since the bay is listed as a Superfund site, the EPA is in charge. The federal agency says Xcel will
have to pay for most of the cleanup. So the EPA wants Xcel to figure out how the pollution should
be cleaned up.
Ashland’s mayor, Fred Schnook, doesn’t like that idea. He says Xcel is looking for the cheapest
way to clean up the site.
“Xcel’s fighting any kind of dredging that has to take place. Some of the options include capping
and other remediation that would be a heck of a lot cheaper than dredging. And again, it’s
understandable what Xcel is doing, they have a profit motive at stake here.”
Schnook says he’s looking out for Ashland. He says Xcel doesn’t have the same motivation to
move quickly and do a thorough cleanup.
But pollution cleanups only get more expensive as time goes by. Jerry Winslow has worked on
several other manufactured gas sites. He says they weren’t so complicated to clean up, because
they weren’t sitting next to a lake.
“You don’t have to worry about the fish, the terns, the birds, the whole ecosystem, the worms, etc.
etc. Here we need to worry about that.”
Winslow says Xcel won’t have plans for a clean-up for at least two more years.
But Ashland mayor Fred Schnook says he’ll push the company to move faster. And he’ll be
keeping a close eye on its work. He says Ashland’s future depends on a clean Chequamegon Bay.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.