A detailed review of every contaminated site in Minnesota is urgently needed….

One of the best elected officials I know of is Cam Gordon of the Minneapolis MN City Council.  Gordon is a Green Party member, one of a relative handful of official Greens holding office in the United States.  I don’t agree with all Gordon’s positions, of course, but he shows an impressive ability to maintain independent and thoughtful positions while seeming to maintain working relationships with his colleagues. In March, 2014, Gordon posted this commentary (below) on one of the more consequential environmental scandals to surface recently in Minnesota.

Some background

(Disclosure:  I have not done anything like a full file review of this, and nobody has asked my opinions on it.  But the patterns shown–patterns of negligence–are consistent with patterns of inadequate “cleanup” and overdone coverup seen at contaminated sites nationwide.  I hope this matter, which has likely had tragic consequences for residents, will focus attention on the need for reform within the Minnesota “Pollution Control” Agency (MPCA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency to get them focused back on their proper responsibilities.)

In brief, a very politically connected and powerful corporation, General Mills, contaminated a parcel of land in Minneapolis (2010 East Hennepin Avenue) with trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent associated with cancer of the kidneys, liver, cervix, and blood, among others, as well as developmental defects, low birth weight, miscarriage, immune system deficiencies, etc.  A really bad actor as chemicals go. Other nasties dumped, and present in the groundwater, include benzene, toluene, xylene, tetrachloroethylene, and trichloroethane. The problem was not caused by accident.  General Mills intentionally dumped used solvents into a pit on the site.  From there, the toxic solvents migrated through the surrounding community and up into people’s basements.   There, the toxic fumes were inhaled. From a report submitted by General Mills’ consultant Barr Engineering (Ugh):

“The former disposal area was used to manage wastes at the facility in a manner that was generally consistent with industry practices at the time. It reportedly consisted of three empty 55-gallon drums that were perforated, stacked one on top of another, and constructed with the bottom of the deepest drum about 10 to 12 feet below the ground surface.”

The US EPA says that from 1947 to 1962,  “General Mills disposed of about 1,000 gallons per year of laboratory solvents in a dry well to a depth of 10 feet.”

A “Response Order by Consent” between General Mills and the MPCA, was signed on October 23, 1984, when less was known about the evils of  TCE.   In 2014–30 years later!–the MPCA and General Mills agreed on a “modification of the Groundwater Remedial Action Plan.”

Think about the time here….

67 years ago General Mills started intentionally dumping solvents into the ground, yet the mess isn’t cleaned up.

30 years ago, a problem was identified by state and federal agencies, and the site was put on the federal “national priorities list‘” of the worst contaminated sites in the US.

In those years several generations of young people could have grown up in toxic home and been permanently damaged or given cancer, in homes around the facility.

Federal (EPA) role–snoozing?

The site is a federal “Superfund” site, but it appears that the EPA has “deferred” its responsibilities to the state:  “The site is part of EPA’s Enforcement Deferral Pilot Agreement with the MPCA and MPCA is the primary agency overseeing cleanup at the site.”  The last “five year report” on the site is dated September, 2004 and is only signed by an MPCA official.


Under the federal Superfund law  residents should be eligible for a $50,000 “Technical Assistance Grant” to hire their own experts.

Because the underground reservoir of TCE generating the “plume” was never fully cleaned up, and the partial “pump and treat” remediation measures started up in 1985 were shut down in 2010 at the behest of General Mills, TCE concentrations may have increased.  Or, they may have been continuously high for many years.

In testing of homes, the MPCA and MDH are assuming an “attenuation [dilution] factor” of ten.  Thus, they assume that if “sub slab” concentrations–what they are testing–are less than 20 micrograms per cubic meter, concentrations in the indoor air will be less than the EPA/MDH “Chronic Health-Based Value for Air” of 2  micrograms per cubic meter, which is supposed to be “A concentration [that] is considered safe to breathe 24 hours a day during any period of life, or over an entire lifetime.”

So far, according to the MPCA, 335 properties have been tested and 171 of them have had “sub slab” concentrations over 20.  about 20 of these have had concentrations over 2000, and at least one was over 15,000. In these, “mitigation” systems similar to radon mitigation systems are being installed to, hopefully, suck out the nasty vapors.

Before-mitigation air tests aren’t being done, so the actual concentrations people have been breathing in those homes, and are now breathing,  apparently remains unknown.  This seems a major shortcoming and it’s hard not to suspect an intent to make it harder for people to sue.

Whether the combined effects of multiple solvents, and the effects of radon (Minnesota is a high radon state) are being adequately considered is unclear. General Mills has submitted a work plan to the MPCA.  The PCA, in a July 16, 2014 letter, rejected the plan as inadequate, saying:

“The Work Plan does address additional soil, soil gas and groundwater testing for trichloroethylene (TCE) but does not provide plans for identifying and evaluating alternatives for cleaning up the ramianing contamination that is creating the vapor intrusion risk.  Therefore, the Work Plan is not approved. … Please provide a revised Work Plan on or before August 18, 2014.”  (In my opinion, the community needs to have some serious input into the Work Plan.)

Who is really at fault?

Beyond doubt the MPCA and the EPA have been negligent in all this.  But, regulatory agencies such as the MPCA are more the scapegoats than the root cause of these situations.  They are politically controlled, and if they are under the thumb of a Governor and/or a Legislature and/or a President and Congress buying into industrial bullshit about how protecting the environment damages the economy, and that “streamlining” regulation and enforcement is the way to go, they will respond accordingly.

Contaminated sites are very often caused by big, politically connected corporations like General Mills.  These “responsible parties” hire big-dollar consultants like Barr Engineering to minimize their liability and costs.  They commonly bring high-level political pressure, as well as the technical pressure,  on the agencies to approve half-measure cleanup plans.  They mislead communities with fancy-pants “community engagement” bullshit that denies people access to the information and resources they would need to effectively challenge and participate.

For their parts, the corporate managements are just doing their duty to the stockholders of minimizing costs and maximizing profits.  And a fat lot of good these explanations do for babies breathing poisons.

How many other sites in Minnesota have not really been cleaned up?  

An audit of the entire program, with a detailed review of every site, seems essential.  I have been told that the MPCA is taking a look a past sites.  Part of the problem is that many sites were looked at primarily from the standpoint of groundwater contamination, and “vapor intrusion” may not have been adequately, if at all, considered.

On to Cam Gordon’s post:

More Information Emerges about TCE Contamination

Last week I had an interesting and disturbing meeting with Dr. Lorne Everett and the legal team pursuing a class action lawsuit against General Mills related to the trichloroethylene (or TCE) problem in Southeast Como. Ricardo McCurley, Southeast Como Improvement Association staff person, was also present. The meeting raised two major concerns for me: that the MPCA’s handling of the TCE soil contamination has been less aggressive and protective than it should have been, and that the current mitigation is seriously inadequate.  There’s more information on these concerns below the fold.

The legal team presented me with an extensive paper trail of how this situation has been handled since the 1980s. It showed what appeared to them to be a pattern of the MPCA working too closely with GM and, I think, not requiring them to do enough to clean up this pollution to an acceptable level. Among other things, they had documents that appeared to indicate that GM’s own consultant recommended removal of all the contaminated soil in the 80s but the MPCA did not require this.

Dr. Everett, a national (even international) expert dealing with toxic vapors who operates an environmental consulting firm and has recently written a book on vapor intrusion, presented information that raised very serious concerns that the current testing and mitigation that is being done is very seriously inadequate. He presented data that showed test results can vary enormously from day to day and that one or two samples show very little. He also believes that tests must be done after the mitigation system is put in to determine if it is working.

Dr. Everett reported that he had visited 12 of the homes in the area and shared photos of several. He was very skeptical that the radon-type mitigation being done currently will actually work and pointed out several credible concerns about it, including that the poor quality of basement walls and floors as well as the fact that the high water levels much of the year would make them ineffective. The good news was that there are clean-up strategies that the experts agree would be effective.  It would, however, be much more expensive than the current approach and would include:

  • Removal of all the contaminated soil from the site (that was clearly called for in the 1980s).
  • Much more, preferably continuous, monitoring of the air in the homes (not just under the slab) before and after mitigation.
  • Much more mitigation to make the old and cracked basement floors and walls effective barriers.
  • Mitigation plans and systems for all the homes in the area, not those that only test high enough.
  • A subsequent thorough cleanup strategy to actually remove the TCE from the ground water and soil under the homes.  There are several proven techniques that might be applicable here including those that use heat, chemicals and or microorganisms.

I also believe that we need to start providing temporary alternative housing for those who are pregnant, are young children or who are women of childbearing age until cleanup and proven-effective mitigation is completed, especially for those living in a basement.

I will say that I left the meeting feeling better informed but with very grave concerns about the people who live in this area and how they may have been suffering unnecessarily for years from a toxic environment.  Even those who have had the mitigation may still be at risk. I admit that I was hearing from one side or perspective, and it would be good to hear from more perspectives.  But I have heard enough to believe that we need to do more and the sooner the better. I think it would be great if General Mills would offer to start doing some or all of these additional measures or that the MPCA would start requiring more to be done before the judicial system forces them to do so.

I have also shared much of this information with the other elected officials from the area. If you want to learn more about what the MPCA is currently doing about this Superfund Site look here. The class action suit has also been in the news.

Alan Muller

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