Minergy Dividends Outweigh PCB Park Land

Neenah Citizen  Friday, July 18, 1997

From Our Point of View

Minergy dividends outweigh PCB park land Some call it the phantom park. Others see it as a wasteland of paper sludge laced with PCB’s.

Twenty-five years ago, as Bergstrom Paper Co. was nearing the end of landfilling of clay residue from the recycling operations, the 32 acres of once-lake bottom was poised to be transformed into a recreation and amusement center.

It was to become the Bay Beach of the Fox Cities, on the south shore of Little Lake Butte des Morts. It would have carnival rides and a miniature train and ball diamonds and docks for fishing and a hill for sliding in winter.

But before the landfill could be capped and the park plans could get underway, the state made a troubling discovery: The spongy paper sludge that had been dumped on the cattail marsh for two decades was a hotbed of toxic chemicals. Indeed, the Department of Natural Resources found the off-shore lake bottom loaded with PCB’s. It was a major source of migrating contamination for the entire Fox River.

There’d be no park. Not without remediation. Not without guarantees that the buried poison wouldn’t harm the health of children.

Arrowhead Park, envisioned as a lakefront jewel, a major community asset, suddenly had become an embarrassing liability.

Fifteen years later, the sludgelands were still fallow. Then along came an innovative proposal that would greatly benefit the city’s major employers. It was capable of converting paper sludge into useful building materials as well as producing steam energy. It would add years and years to the life of the county landfill.

Minergy expects to have its $45 million prototype in operation early next year. If it works as well as engineers expect, the concept will be copied allover the world. But there’s a big horsefly in the ointment. A group Neenah citizens, irate at the city’s long-term lease of four acres of potential parkland to Minergy, has filed suit to halt the project. The state Supreme Court has been called in to settle the dispute.

Legally, it would seam the group is holding the winning hand. The state Legislature in 1951 deeded those 32 acres of lake bottom to Neenah to be used for a public purpose. Minergy, while saving 10 acres of public landfill space each year, still is a private, profit-making company.

But what was the City of Neenah to do? It had a useless parcel of land that a company promised to turn into a public benefit.

We side with the critics who fear the loss of a single acre of designated park property. Perhaps, the lease money should be set aside to purchase four acres elsewhere. Someday, as new technologies are developed, Arrowhead Park might rise from its toxic sludge bank to become a recreation area. It’ll still be a major site, minus only a few acres along the lakefront.

In the meantime, however, Minergy, should be permitted to produce its immediate environmental dividends.