EPA seeks final cleanup plan for Cass Lake Superfund siteby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Cleanup at the St. Regis Superfund site near downtown Cass Lake has been going on for nearly 25 years. Yet dangerous chemicals linger in the soil and groundwater around the former wood treatment plant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the site still poses health risks to local residents.
Now, EPA officials say it's time to seek a final solution in Cass Lake. The EPA has ordered owners of the property to come up with a plan to permanently protect people from the chemicals.
Bemidji, Minn. — For nearly 30 years, the St. Regis Paper Company produced chemically-treated telephone poles and railroad ties at the site, not far from the headquarters of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. No one knew at the time the chemicals they used were dangerous.
The plant shut down in 1985, and government agencies have been trying to figure out how to clean up the mess ever since.
Tons of soil have been removed over the years. Wells and extraction systems were installed to clean plumes of contaminated groundwater.
This isn't just an industrial site. People live here. In fact, about 30 families have homes within the Superfund boundaries.
High levels of cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin and pentachlorophenol can still be found in their yards.
EPA remedial project manager Tim Drexler says there have been lots of temporary fixes, including periodic house cleanings to remove dangerous dust in neighborhood homes. Drexler says it's time for something more permanent.
The EPA has ordered potential responsible parties -- including International Paper, the current owner of the St. Regis site -- to come up with a list of permanent clean-up options.
"We're getting really close to the end here, because once we have developed the alternatives, and that should be roughly a year from now, then everything will become very clear about where this is going and how it's going to get there, and we're all certainly looking forward to that," said Drexler
According to Drexler, those options will probably include excavation of tons more contaminated soil. He says a less likely option -- though one preferred by many residents -- would be to relocate the entire neighborhood.
"We will be reviewing whatever alternatives they come up with," said Drexler. "The state will be reviewing them and the band will be reviewing them. We're hopeful that we can come up with alternatives that can satisfy everyone that's involved."
The lengthy cleanup process has been frustrating for Cass Lake residents.
Mayor Wayne LaDuke says the pollution has lowered property values and stunted economic development in the town. LaDuke says people just want it to be over with.
"They'd like to see some closure as far as getting it cleaned up and getting rid of the negative image," said LaDuke. "It doesn't help the city of Cass Lake, in fact it wouldn't help any community, if it was publicized that the community is situated on a Superfund site."
Generations of Cass Lake residents grew up in or near the Superfund site, and many say they've seen high rates of cancer, birth defects and other diseases in their families.
Bemidji attorney Mark Rogers has filed property and personal injury lawsuits on behalf of a number of Cass Lake families. Rogers says his clients want a buy-out that will allow them to move away from the contamination.
"You've got people living over there who are in an area that has dioxin that's 100 times what the tribe says is acceptable, 50 times what the state says is acceptable," said Rogers. "They're concerned about their health.
A Minnesota Department of Health report shows slightly elevated levels of cancer in Cass Lake.
Rita Messing, an MDH toxicologist and supervisor of site assessment and consultation, says there's no way to clearly link diseases in the community to the contamination at St. Regis.
"We could never ascribe an increase in different kinds of disease rates to exposures that exist," said Messing. "There could have been historical exposures from when the wood treatment facility was open that were much higher, but we really have no way of going back in time and finding out what those might have been.
Messing says people in Cass Lake can at least be relieved that a more permanent cleanup plan is in the works.
"The Superfund process is very frustrating and the process is very complex and it does take time," said Messing. "That said, I think that we have now reached a point where we can see, we should be able to see progress on a somewhat less glacial timeframe."
A long term cleanup plan in Cass Lake is still several years away. A feasibility study of cleanup options will be completed next year. EPA officials say a final decision on the best course of action won't be ready until 2010.
- Morning Edition, 06/18/2008, 7:25 a.m.