What to Do about Owen

park's soil contamination may have silver lining

Kinzy Janssen

Owen Park’s bandshell is safe, but 25,000 tons of soil polluted with petroleum and heavy metals are headed for the landfill, along with about 75 trees.
Owen Park’s bandshell is safe, but 25,000 tons of soil polluted with petroleum and heavy metals are headed for the landfill, along with about 75 trees.

What do you get when you cross a beloved city park with hundred-year-old contaminants? Public input meetings!

The first public input meeting to determine what will become of the two acres in Owen Park slated for tree removal and soil remediation was August 15. 

But let’s back up for a second. The Department of Natural Resources has found concentrations of petroleum and heavy metals in the soil just north of the bandshell which they traced to the Eau Claire Gas & Light Company, a manufactured gas plant that operated here over a century ago. The company was later overtaken by Xcel Energy, so Xcel has assumed responsibility for the $3 million cleanup.

“We heard everything from ‘build it up’ to ‘leave’ it alone. I’d prefer a compromise.” – Phil Fieber, Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry for the City of Eau Claire 

“Traditionally, remediation is done on property we own… but at this site we’re required to restore a property that is a city park. So there was recognition that the city should be responsible for acquiring public input,” says James Hanke, Manager of Economic Development & Community Services at Xcel Energy. 

We already know that 25,000 tons of polluted soil are headed for the landfill, along with about 75 trees. “The DNR took a really closely look at [saving the trees]… we found that it is not viable because their root structures are intertwined and complex… so we’d run the risk of leaving contaminants on the site,” says Hanke. Currently six inches of topsoil lay on top of the polluted layer. 

The important question to address, then, is what could be incorporated into the blank slate. So far, an informal group of about five individuals has backed an idea to identify the area as a Celebration Plaza.  It would contain tangible tributes (sculptures? historical displays?) to veterans, police officers, and firefighters. As Owen Park has already hosted Memorial Day services for decades, the expansion of the theme would seem logical.

“Other ideas presented were playground expansion and some kind of public art installation… we heard everything from ‘build it up’ to ‘leave it alone.’ I’d prefer a compromise,” says Phil Fieber, Director of Parks, Recreation, & Forestry for the City of Eau Claire.

Fieber also mentioned that replacing the bathrooms next to the bandshell and moving them out of the flood plain is necessary, and that it would make sense to complete that transition now. Interim city manager Brian Amundson suggested contouring the land in question in such a way that a pad (flattened surface area) sits above the flood plain, where a future bathroom could exist.

A second public input meeting will be held on Aug. 29, where attendees can view preliminary sketches provided by a landscape architect that incorporate previously posed ideas. The project is on a fairly speedy approval timeline; the DNR must first approve the plan before Xcel can start overseeing remediation in October. 

“Sometimes you can’t fight Mother Nature, but we’re hoping to have the grading and seeding done by May,” says Hanke.

Xcel will be spending $109,000 for grading and seeding, plus additional funds to restore the parking lot and the disrupted section of trail. Though the playground does not sit on affected land, it will be closed temporarily from fall until spring. 

A public input meeting will be held on Aug. 29 from 7-9pm at Hobbs Ice Center in the Club Viewing Room.

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