Graham Kilmer

State’s Largest Brownfield Now Clean

After years of remediation, a highly-contaminated site in the Menomonee Valley is certified as clean by the DNR.

By - Jul 27th, 2020 07:42 pm
Menomonee Valley. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Menomonee Valley. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

The largest single site of industrial contamination in Wisconsin has been certified by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as cleaned up.

The 110-acre brownfield was where the Milwaukee Road Shops stretched out as a sprawling complex of industry dedicated to producing and repairing rail cars and locomotives. In the beginning of the 20th century as many as 3,000 workers labored away at the shops on the rail cars that carried freight and passengers around the country.

A half century later, following the construction of the interstate system and the development of commercial aviation, the products of the road shops began to fall into disuse. By the mid-1980s, the company that ran the shops went bankrupt. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, called ‘The Milwaukee Road,’ was closed for good.

With the railyard closed, the property succumbed to vacancy. And years of industry left the area severely laden with lead, asbestos, chlorinated solvents and petroleum.

In 1998, nearly 120 years after production started at the road shops, the City of Milwaukee, under Mayor John Norquist started upon the revitalization of the once industrial artery, the Menomonee Valley. And in 2003, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee had acquired the shops property and started construction

The road shops site was on a wetland, and like other wetlands unlucky enough to become a place of industrial activity in the 19th century, it was simply filled in with a wide range of materials making for unstable soil conditions. Margaret Brunette, the DNR Hydrogeologist that has overseen cleanup since 1992, said “There were six miles of underground clay-lined sewers, an on-site wastewater treatment plant and contaminants such as asbestos and lead throughout the site.”

Over the years, these contaminated soils have been removed or sealed in an envelope of clean soils and materials. The project was massive. Concrete material was repurposed from the nearby Marquette Interchange project. And 900,000 cubic yards of fill material was used to restore the floodplain, according to the DNR.

Now the site is certified clean, by the DNR. Though like most sites, this means most of the contamination was removed, not all of it.  Enough has been removed that the contamination is no longer a threat to human health or the environment, said Christine Haag, Bureau Director of the Division of Environmental Management for the DNR.

And the responsible entities, namely the city and RACM, will monitor the conditions of the site, making sure the caps of fill material hiding away old hotspots of contamination are maintained. Or once the properties are sold, or redeveloped, it will be the new owners or developers, with coordination from the DNR, maintaining the integrity of the material caps.

“Anyone who remembers what the land looked like around the former County Stadium in the 1970s and 80s must surely be amazed at the transformation that has taken place,” said Preston Cole, DNR Secretary, in a statement. 

The clean up of the road shops site is a “remarkable testament,” Cole said, to the determination to give the Menomonee Valley a “brighter future.”

Despite the environmental degradation wrought by the industrial age, the valley is now home to a new business park with businesses engaged in manufacturing, along with acres of parkland and the Hank Aaron Trail.

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