More than 150 residents have been evacuated from an apartment complex and it's unclear when they'll be able to return after tests showed elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical used in adhesives and paint removers.
State environmental regulators say they didn't know the building was occupied.
The Milwaukee Health Department issued an evacuation order on Saturday to residents after learning of "exceptionally high" levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, at the east building of Community Within the Corridor. The roughly $70 million project converted long-vacant industrial buildings into an affordable housing development with 197 units on the city's northwest side. The project also includes some commercial and community spaces for residents. Development firms Scott Crawford Inc. and Roers Companies are partnering on the project.
The developers had installed a vapor mitigation system in the building to remove airborne chemicals on the site.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources received air test results last week that showed TCE readings beyond the indoor action level of 2.1 micrograms per cubic meter at 19 spots within residential and common spaces. The highest level recorded was 400 micrograms per cubic meter.
"We primarily recommended to them that they not occupy the building with residents until after they had data that could show that their vapor mitigation system was functioning and that it would continue to function in a steady state," said Christine Sieger, director of the DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment program.
Sieger noted developers weren't required to follow the agency's recommendation, but she said it's unusual for companies to go against advice that's intended to protect public health. The DNR had strongly advised developers to conduct three rounds of testing after the system began operating primarily due to health risks associated with TCE. In December, the developers' consultant said installation of that system in the east building was nearing completion.
What is Trichloroethylene or TCE?
TCE is a commonly used solvent that is used for degreasing metal parts by industry. It doesn't break down easily in the environment. Curtis Hedman, toxicologist with the Department of Health Services, said TCE can vaporize and seep up from soil, and it can then enter buildings through cracks or vents. He said individuals who are or may become pregnant are at higher risk when the chemicals go beyond action levels. He said studies have shown TCE can affect human development.
"One of the more serious ones is the fetal heart defect, but we also have potential issues with the immunological system or the nervous system," Hedman said. "We also have observed lower birth weights with TCE exposure."
The EPA has also classified TCE as a known carcinogen, and there's strong evidence linking exposure to kidney and liver cancers. The acute effects of inhaling TCE warrants avoiding even a single exposure over a 24-hour period, Hedman said. He advised affected residents to mention their exposure to their primary doctors, but he noted it's unlikely to be detected by tests since TCE is metabolized quickly by the body.
The DNR made multiple requests last week of the companies' consultant, K. Singh & Associates, to determine whether the building was occupied before learning of the elevated levels.
"East Block has some occupancy. We are working on taking corrective measures. We will keep you posted," wrote K. Singh CEO Pratap Singh in a March 22 email.
The next day, the DNR received the first round of air sampling that showed elevated levels, and the consultant confirmed women of child-bearing age were living in the apartment building. Shane LaFave, senior vice president of development for Roers Companies, said four of 56 units that were occupied in the building had elevated TCE levels.
LaFave said developers had conducted mechanical tests to ensure the system was working effectively.
"There was no reason for us to believe that there was TCE present in the air," LaFave said. "There was every reason to believe that our vapor mitigation system was working effectively."
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Even so, he acknowledged the companies had not yet received air testing results after installing the system. LaFave said the system is designed to ensure vapors from the chemicals are removed from the building.
Residents began occupying the building as early as October
Residents began moving into part of the affected building in January after it received an occupancy certificate from the city of Milwaukee in December, according to LaFave. He said some people had already begun moving into another portion of the building as early as October under a separate occupancy certificate.
He noted the DNR's recommendation would mean the last round of air testing would take place in August, which would have meant an 8-month delay. LaFave said the agency doesn't have to balance the demands that developers face, saying it can take a "very safe, very conservative" position on waiting for test results. He said they were trying to balance the demand for affordable housing after receiving more than 4,000 inquiries from prospective residents in October.
"When we have to make a decision about occupancy, we're balancing that and the needs of the community, the commitments that we've made to the city and to others about delivering a project and making the housing available to people," LaFave said.
With residents now displaced, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said the city stepped up to secure temporary lodging for them at hotels on Saturday.
"I think that (the developers) know that there's work for them to do to make sure that the people who have been affected by this are whole, are taken care of, or that they have the accommodations that they need," Johnson told reporters Wednesday in Milwaukee.
When asked about occupancy permits that were issued, he added it would be good for Milwaukee's Department of Neighborhood Services to review its alignment with state agencies to ensure "there are no steps being missed."
Emily Tau, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee Health Department, said the city has provided residents with Visa gift cards to help supplement food and transportation costs. She added that long-term relocation or support for residents will be the responsibility of developers.
LaFave said they’re working with the DNR, the city, and others to assess why the building has elevated TCE levels. The developers' engineering consultant is doing smoke testing to identify any leaks or cracks in exhaust systems, as well as examining its vapor mitigation system.
On Monday, LaFave proposed allowing people to move back into 2nd and 3rd floor units if another round of testing finds no elevated levels there. The DNR responded Tuesday that wouldn't be sufficient for allowing people to return because many prior samples were not collected in residential living spaces and only reflect results at one point in time.
LaFave said they never wanted residents to go through what they're facing now.
"We're doing everything we can to make sure they get back into their homes as quickly as possible by providing a safe environment," LaFave said. "Our intention has never been to put our residents in an unsafe situation."
Sieger with the DNR said it's unclear when residents may be allowed to return to the building, noting questions remain over elevated TCE levels.
"Until we have more answers to those questions, and we're able to pinpoint some reasons why there's vapor indoors, we can't speculate on how long it's going to take to solve the problem," Sieger said.
Editor's note: Evan Casey contributed reporting for this story.