DNR says it was unaware the now-evacuated Community Within The Corridor apartments in Milwaukee had been occupied

The affordable housing project is being worked on Friday, July 1, 2022, located at the Community Within The Corridor.
The affordable housing project is being worked on Friday, July 1, 2022, located at the Community Within The Corridor.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources did not know that residents had already moved into an affordable housing development that was evacuated on Saturday after authorities were notified of elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical, a department representative said.

More than 150 residents of Community Within The Corridor East Block, 2748 N. 32nd Street, were ordered to evacuate and have yet to return to their homes.

The DNR informed the Milwaukee Health Department on Friday about elevated levels of the chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE, at the building that was once part of the now-redeveloped Briggs & Stratton complex.

The DNR learned that the building was occupied only after repeatedly requesting this information in the week leading up to the evacuation, DNR Remediation and Redevelopment Program Director Christine Sieger said at a City Hall news conference Tuesday.

Related:See photos of the Community Within The Corridor affordable housing project

Related:This $59 million conversion of a central city industrial site into housing, commercial space is proceeding

Citing health concerns for residents, the department had previously warned the developer against allowing the building to be occupied before a "vapor mitigation system" that removes the vapors from the building had been commissioned, according to correspondence publicly available on the department's website.

"The DNR has not had to work with this kind of situation previously in that our recommendations are typically implemented by the party responsible," she said.

The presence of TCE was known before Community Within The Corridor purchased the property and is in the soil and air beneath the building, she said. She described the chemical as a solvent commonly used for cleaning manufactured metal parts and that may also have been used in paint products.

"Because of the age of the building, its long industrial use, the complexity of its construction and foundation, and the levels of high TCE in soil and soil vapor beneath the building, vapor intrusion has been a significant concern expressed by the DNR to CWC since early input," she said.

Developers Roers Companies LLC and Scott Crawford Inc. in a statement said they had been working closely with the city and state after being "being made aware of the unexpected increase in TCE levels within the East Block building at Community Within the Corridor."

The companies acknowledged the disruption of residents' lives and said their "goal is to effectively address this matter and remove any potential health concerns quickly, in order to return residents back to their homes and daily lives as soon as possible."

They also said "extensive" pre-development work on the site included environmental testing and remediation, including a vapor mitigation system that has been used in other buildings successfully.

"The system was tested prior to residents taking occupancy and all tests indicated this system was working correctly and thus was considered to be safe for residents to move in," the statement said.

The statement did not address the DNR's warning. The developers did not come to the news conference.

The companies previously said residents began moving in late last year.

DNR previously issued a safety warning to the developer

Sieger said the DNR had "strongly recommended in writing a number of times" that the apartments not be occupied until the developers could confirm the vapor mitigation system was operating correctly ― a process she said could take multiple rounds of testing to ensure the system's effectiveness.

In January, the DNR raised concerns about a plan dated Dec. 23 to commission the vapor mitigation system. The department had received the plan on Dec. 28, according to emails.

"In consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, the DNR strongly recommends completing all necessary rounds of commissioning prior to any occupancy to avoid potentially exposing future residents to indoor air contamination that may present acute health risks," wrote Jane K. Pfeiffer, DNR hydrogeologist for the Remediation and Redevelopment Program.

Pfeiffer also wrote that the indoor air sampling plan was inadequate to evaluate the presence and concentration of vapors inside.

Emails starting March 20 show Pfeiffer repeatedly requesting results of testing and asking the developers and their associates at K. Singh & Associates, Inc. when they planned to allow residents to move into the building.

Late on March 22, K. Singh & Associates CEO Pratap N. Singh provided a brief response: “East Block has some occupancy. We are working on taking corrective measures. We will keep you posted. Thank you."

Pfeiffer's emails became increasingly urgent after a March 22 phone call in which she learned of the elevated TCE levels in indoor air samples collected in the areas primarily used as residences.

The sums were well above the "action levels" of 2.1 micrograms per cubic meter for women of childbearing age and 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter for the general public.

City and DNR officials told the Journal Sentinel that a level of 15 micrograms per cubic meter was detected in residential areas ― with a high of 400 micrograms per cubic meter in a laundry area.

The building's three floors all had elevated vapor levels, according to the DNR.

Elevated amounts of TCE vapor were measured in four of 56 occupied apartments in the building, according to the developers.

The DNR is the regulatory authority that oversees the investigation and remediation of the environmental contamination at the site. It does not issue occupancy permits, according to Sieger.

Developer proposes moving tenants back into 2nd and 3rd floors

Days after the evacuation, the developer proposed a plan to return residents to the building's second- and third-floor units using a method the DNR rejected the following day as insufficient to ensure safety, emails made public Wednesday show.

Roers Companies Senior Vice President Shane LaFave wrote in an email late Monday night that the developer would continue "correction efforts" this week and starting Thursday would have a team collecting real-time indoor air data.

"Testing on the 3rd and 2nd floors will be our priority. Assuming we get clean test results, that would then be two points of data indicating those areas on 2nd and 3rd floor are safe," LaFave wrote in the email to Pfeiffer and Milwaukee Interim Health Commissioner Tyler Weber.

He said they could also take the step of sealing off a stairwell and hallway that where TCE levels were elevated.

"In the interest of restoring people’s normal lives, we think it would then be appropriate to move people back into their 2nd and 3rd floor homes," he wrote. "There are multiple other stairwells and multiple elevators that can take them in and out of the building without needing to pass through any areas that had exceedances, such that safe ingress and egress to their homes is assured."

He said they'd still have to work on other areas of the building that have higher levels and frequencies of exceedances.

In her lengthy response, Pfeiffer rejected the proposed additional round of indoor air sampling on the 2nd and 3rd floors and instead provided a series of other steps that should be taken to ensure residents' safety.

LaFave's proposed air analysis method, she wrote, "will not be sufficient to determine whether re‐occupancy of the 2nd and 3rd floors is appropriate. Many of the previous indoor air samples collected on these floors were not collected in residential living spaces."

She added that the proposed method only provides information about the indoor air conditions at the time of sampling and does not account for variations over time.

Among the additional steps Pfeiffer said would be needed were the collection of indoor air samples to be analyzed by a lab to assess air on the two floors ― in both common spaces and in each apartment.

TCE an 'imminent and substantial danger' to health

In the order for evacuation, Weber wrote that the conditions present "an imminent and substantial danger to the public health," a concern echoed by the state Department of Health Services.

Exposure to elevated levels of TCE vapors puts people at risk for health effects including kidney and liver cancers and some malignant myelomas, said Curtis Hedman of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

For women who are or may become pregnant, exposure could lead to developmental problems for their babies, including heart defects, neurological and immune system changes and lower birth weights, he said.

The higher the exposure, the more the risk for health effects increases, he said.

Once exposure to the substance ends, the body can process it within about a day, he said.

Community Within The Corridor is a $68M redevelopment project

Community Within The Corridor is a $68 million mixed-use project to redevelop about 7 acres bordered by West Center, West Hadley and North 33rd streets, and Union Pacific railroad tracks.

It includes six industrial buildings that range from one to three stories tall and total of 380,000 square feet. They have been converted into 197 apartments, commercial space, and recreational and community space.

In July, residents started moving into the first 67 apartments at the site. The remaining 130 apartments were expected to be open by the end of last year, lead developer Que El-Amin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time.

Residents have remained at their apartments in the development's West Block, where there were lower concentrations of contamination and the system has shown no exceedances in past indoor air sampling, according to the DNR.

El-Amin's development firm, Scott Crawford Inc., worked with local investors Mikal Wesley, president of Urbane Communities LLC, and  Rayhainio "Ray Nitti" Boynes, who operates The Creative Corridor Inc. The local developers in 2017 also partnered with Minneapolis-based apartment development firm Roers Co.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: DNR unaware Community Within The Corridor apartments were occupied