By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The city of Marshfield will look to a familiar company to perform annual slag sealing of roads, a process that last year left several residents very unhappy. On Monday night the city’s board of public works unanimously approved a bid by Scott Construction Inc. of Lake Delton to again perform slag sealing for Marshfield in the summer of 2016. The Marshfield Common Council still must give final approval for using the contractor.
Scott Construction applied the slag seal product in 2015 on two days, Aug. 21 and Aug. 24, according to Street Superintendent Mike Winch. The process is intended to preserve the life of roads by filling in cracks and preventing water from getting in those spaces and later freezing. However, the 2015 product proved to be much dustier than in years past.
Marshfield resident Kathy Rogers lives on North Willow Avenue, one of several roads that received the slag seal treatment in August of 2015. She spent hours, 37 by her count, cleaning up the mess that dust from the slag seal created. As cars drove past, dust from the slag seal kicked into the air and coated Rogers’ property.
“It was just horrendous,” Rogers said. Her notes regarding the ordeal said, “For seven days the black coal dust continued covering everything on my property, including the roof of the house, the siding all the way around, the lawn front and back, the deck in the back of the house, all windows inside and out.”
When Hub City Times met with Rogers in March of this year, she said that the dust was at its worst in the days after the slag sealing was initially done on Aug. 24, 2015, but that black dust could, at the time of the interview, still rub off on materials it came in contact with, especially when wet. Rogers said she was told by the city that Scott Construction would power wash her driveway, but the company never returned to do so.
An entry in Rogers’ notes marked Aug. 25 of 2015 said, “The dust cloud reached approximately 25 feet into the air spreading over the neighborhood.”
The city acknowledged the dust issue last year. Mayor Chris Meyer said in late August of 2015, “We’ve had some problems with our slag seal process this year. This is not a new process. We’ve been using it for about a decade. However, this year the product is incredibly dusty.”
City Administrator Steve Barg said the 2015 slag seal product was “a slightly different mix” than the city used before and that it was “a more fine material … than we’ve used in the past.”
The city watered all the streets receiving the slag seal treatment multiple times each day from Aug. 25 – Aug. 31 to mitigate the dust issue, Winch said. Rogers said the watering temporarily helped, but the dust issue continued. Signs telling drivers to go slowly on North Willow Avenue were also erected, Rogers noted.
On Aug. 31, according to Rogers’ notes, North Willow Avenue was swept — according to the city this was done by a contractor it hired — but that still did not quell the dust.
Rogers said she asked to have the street closed until the situation was resolved, but the city would not do that.
“The hard part is, is then you may have one person that’s interested in having that road closed, but you may have 10 other people that live on that same block that (do) not have the same feelings towards that,” City Engineer Tom Turchi said.
Mark Wagner, Rogers’ life partner, said when interviewed in March that his main concern was potential health consequences of the black dust being inhaled. He was specifically concerned that the slag seal product had beryllium in it.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), “Beryllium-exposed workers may … develop … adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease and lung cancer,” among other issues.
However, OSHA “enforces permissible exposure limits (PELs) for beryllium to protect employees in general industry, construction, and shipyards. Employers must ensure that employees are not exposed to levels of beryllium above the PELs in their workplaces.”
A material safety data sheet (MDS) detailing the specific slag seal product used in 2015 in Marshfield said, among other effects, “Excessive inhalation of dust may result in respiratory diseases, including silicosis, pneumoconiosis, and pulmonary fibrosis.”
Rogers says in her notes she was told by Meyer and Barg that, “There are no health risks associated with short-term exposure and inhalation of this product.”
Barg said he did not recall ever making that statement and instead said he remembers emphasizing that the effects he knew of were in the context of long-term exposure.
Meyer added in an email to Hub City Times, “The MDS states that long-term exposure can (cause) illness. When I met on site with some of the neighbors, this was discussed. I don’t recall my exact statements, but we discussed the terms ‘long term’ and what that means.
“Crews that apply this product all summer long throughout the state do not wear respirators. Even that level of exposure does not rise to the level of ‘long term.’ People who work in a plant day in and day out with this product do wear respirators.
“I remember making the comment along the lines of, ‘I can’t say there is no impact. Even playground sand has risks, but there is no evidence that the dust you had to deal with has any long-term health effects.’”
Wagner said he was also troubled after Rogers’ grandchildren had been playing outside at one point and came back into the house with black dust coating their feet.
“This concerns me,” Wagner said referencing a photo of Rogers’ granddaughter’s feet covered in black dust. “I mean that’s terrible that you got to have your 4- and 6-year-old with coal dust like that. That’s not right.”
Five property owners submitted claims
Rogers and four other property owners in Marshfield filed claims — four of which were sent to the city and one directly to Scott Construction — seeking reimbursement for various expenses, including time spent cleaning up the black dust, cleaning services hired, and materials needed for cleaning. The claims came from two properties on North Willow Avenue, two on West 14th Street, and another on South Adams Avenue. The slag seal treatment was applied to several other streets aside from the ones on which the five claimants own property.
One resident wrote in his claim, “This was a huge, inconvenient, and time consuming mess that took us a week to clean it up.”
Another said that the dust from the slag seal process caused “a black disaster to the neighborhood.”
Statewide Services Inc. handles claims for Marshfield’s insurer, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Mutual Insurance. Statewide sent the claims to Scott Construction and its insurer, Cincinnati Insurance Companies, stating that it was the contractor, not the city, which was ultimately responsible for handling the claims.
A back and forth between the insurance companies followed in which Cincinnati Insurance advocated splitting the claims 50-50 between Scott Construction and the city, according to documents obtained by Hub City Times.
Douglas Detlie, a casualty claims specialist with Statewide Services, responded to a letter in which Cincinnati Insurance apparently argued that Scott Construction was not contracted to clean up after road sealing operations were finished. Detlie said in his response that Director of Public Works Dan Knoeck was “adamant that the atypical cloud of debris entering the air and settling on the claimant property occurred prior to the road sealing operation entering the clean-up phase. Thus, the cause of the claimed damages rests squarely with your policyholder, Scott Construction.”
Hub City Times has spoken with four of the five property owners who filed claims for damages, including Rogers, and they all said they have reached settlement deals. In each case the claimants said payment came from Scott Construction, not Cincinnati Insurance. Hub City Times attempted to reach the fifth claimant but did not receive a response, though Barg said all five claimants reached a settlement agreement. Barg added that the city did not pay anything to the claimants.
The city’s response
Instead of the traditional slag seal process, this year the city will apply a “micro surfacing treatment” on Adler Road from Lincoln to Adams. The rest of the city’s roads set for maintenance will undergo the regular slag sealing.
The micro surfacing treatment is supposed to be nearly a “dust free” process, according to city documents. The downsides to the micro surfacing treatment, Knoeck said, are that it requires the road to be closed for two to four hours, and, “It’s a bit more expensive.”
Knoeck said roads targeted for slag sealing are typically five to seven years old. Between the regular slag sealing process and the micro surfacing treatment, the city estimated the cost at about $106,000 this year.
In this year’s contract, Scott Construction — rather than the city — will be responsible for having the streets swept after the slag seal is applied.
“I think that’ll streamline that process,” Knoeck said. He added that the contract this year for the slag seal process spells out that, “The contractor takes full responsibility for dust control, and they have to proceed in a manner that minimizes the dust.”
“We want to do be doing everything that we can so this doesn’t happen again, but that’s not to suggest that we had fault,” Barg said. According to city documents pertaining to the process for 2016, “The slag seal contract does include revised specifications to address the dust issues that were encountered during last year’s slag seal process.”
Winch said Scott Construction has done the slag sealing in Marshfield in three of the last five years. By state law, the city is obligated to contract with the “lowest responsible bidder” for public construction that exceeds an estimated cost of $25,000. Scott Construction’s bid for the project in 2015 was just over $88,000 and for this year was just over $93,000. The next lowest 2016 bid was by Fahrner Asphalt Sealers LLC, which was just over $96,000, though Fahrner will perform the micro surfacing treatment.
“In order to exclude Scott from the bid process, we would have to demonstrate in some way, shape, or form that they are not a qualified contractor, which can happen in some cases when someone has clearly done things that are inappropriate or failed to meet their performance here or elsewhere,” Barg said. “In this case that really wasn’t what happened,” noting that the product Scott applied in 2015 met city specifications.
“We have confidence in the work that Scott does. They’ve done considerable work for the city of Marshfield in the past,” Barg said.
Scott Construction did not respond to a request for comment on this story.