When factories close, the contamination left behind can plague a site for years, discouraging reuse of otherwise good real estate.
More than 50 years after La Crosse’s gas light plant shut down, Xcel Energy is still finishing cleanup of the 4-acre site at Second Street and Copeland Avenue, a project that has dragged on for decades and cost millions of dollars.
Xcel removed or treated some 85,000 tons of soil contaminated with arsenic, lead, cyanide left behind during the roughly 100 years when gas was extracted from coal.
The utility, which purchased the plant in 1923 and operated it until 1960, is now ready to request closure of the site from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which has overseen the cleanup.
Mike Herro, Xcel’s area manager, said he hopes to put the vacant lot, which sits at the gateway of downtown, on the market next year in hopes that it can be redeveloped like dozens of other sites that now house multimillion dollar developments.
Brownfields — abandoned, idle and underused commercial properties with contamination, real or imagined — are ubiquitous. The DNR has helped clean up more than 17,500 such sites and has identified another 6,000 statewide, from factories to corner gas stations.
And they can hinder development of prime real estate.
“People won’t touch them because they fear there’s a lot of contamination,” said Darsi Foss, director of the DNR’s remediation and redevelopment program.
The gas plant site was one of several brownfields visited by members of the state’s Natural Resources Board, which oversees the DNR, in advance of the citizen board’s meeting today in Onalaska.
The board met in CenturyLink’s La Crosse office, a $25 million structure overlooking the Mississippi River that was built in 2001 on a former rail yard and now houses about 650 workers.
Bob Brown, CenturyLink’s vice president of operations in Wisconsin, said the Louisiana-based company was just days from moving its La Crosse operation to Michigan before the state came through with a $1 million grant to clean the soil.
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“That was really, really important,” Brown told the board. “We really need it along the Mississippi (River). There are a lot of sites no corporation like ours would take on.”
In the 19th century, when goods moved by river and rail, the Mississippi River was a magnet for industry. Over time, many of those factories closed, leaving vacant lots often contaminated with solvents and other chemicals.
These days, Foss said, cities are embracing their waterfronts as prime land where “people want to live, work and play.”
Hemmed in by the river on one side and bluffs on the other, La Crosse does not have greenfield land to develop.
“In many ways it’s been a blessing in that it’s focused our efforts on redevelopment,” said Mayor Tim Kabat.
The DNR estimates redevelopment of 11 brownfield sites in La Crosse has resulted in $282 million in increased property value, which translates into lower property taxes for everyone.
Among the other sites the board toured were the former Desmond Formal Wear property, cleaned with a $312,000 DNR grant to make way for a nearly $13 million Kwik Trip bakery and freezer, and a 10-acre lot on George Street, where earth movers are compacting topsoil to make way for a planned $18 million commercial development that will include a grocery store.
Once the site of Trane Plant 6, the land was purchased in the 1990s by LIPCO, a joint venture of the city of La Crosse, Xcel Energy and the La Crosse Area Redevelopment Corp., which demolished the plant so that Trane Co. could excavate contaminated soil underneath it.
LADCO executive director Jim Hill said that would not have been possible without public assistance, including a $250,000 DNR loan, a $165,000 grant from the former Department of Commerce and $200,000 in federal stimulus funds.
Developer Marvin Wanders said brownfield development is neither cheap nor easy, but it’s better for the community to provide business opportunities in the urban core.
“It would be a heck of a lot easier … to buy a 200-acre farm. It would probably be more profitable,” he said. “When this is done, this whole neighborhood will change.”