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Sea Grant Aids Superfund Site Clean-Up

House across from a grassy field that is part of a Superfund site in Cass Lake, MN.

A house sits across from a grassy field that is part of a Superfund site in Cass Lake, MN.

Cass Lake, MN (pop. 850), is the kind of northwoods town where the restrooms at the local gas station are labeled "bucks" and "does." Just a few blocks from the station lies a federal Superfund site. Lacking any signs, it's hard to tell the area is contaminated. An Ojibwe woman wanders through gathering cedar boughs for craft projects. Children from across the dirt road play on grasslands where logs were once soaked in ponds of creosote and then stacked in long piles for later use as telephone poles, railroad ties, and bridge supports.

Like a dog nobody wants, ownership of the site has passed through many hands, as has responsibility for its clean-up. Back in 1957, the property was owned by St. Regis Paper, which conducted wood-preserving activities there and operated a box cutting factory. In 1984, the several-acre area was declared a Superfund site one of the first designated under a new state law. Its care switched from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and was one of the state agency's first major clean-up projects.

In 1985, Champion International Corp. bought the operation from St. Regis and closed it nine months later. Champion, now International Paper Co., began remediation efforts recommended by the state shortly afterwards, installing a groundwater treatment facility, starting a groundwater monitoring program, and building a containment vault to store contaminated soil.

However, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe were concerned that the site was never properly studied and that clean-up actions by Champion were not effective. The site lies immediately adjacent to Pike Bay on Cass Lake an important recreational and subsistence fishery for the Band. Wells in the vicinity supply water to the Band's fish hatchery and drinking water to the town of Cass Lake.

The Band asked scientists at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and Minnesota Sea Grant at the University of Minnesota Duluth to help assess the remediation actions and develop a plan for further efforts.

Sea Grant, NRRI, and the Leech Lake Tribal Council then formed a partnership to collaborate on a proposal to the EPA's Environmental Justice Program, which was funded at $250,000 in 1998.

The groups convened three panels of experts to prepare a report on what was known and what needed to be known about groundwater conditions, human health risks, and ecological health risks. They also initiated the first survey of major contaminants in Cass Lake and Pike Bay sediments, fish, and aquatic invertebrates, and helped upgrade the analytical capabilities of the Minnesota Chippewa Water Quality Laboratory in Cass Lake

Testing recently completed by the EPA found potentially harmful levels of dioxins, furans, and other compounds left behind from treating wood. These chemicals are known cancer-causers. Eighteen of 20 soil samples taken by the EPA in the neighborhood have tested above accepted levels for semi-volatile organic compounds. Whitefish in the nearby lake carry 10 times the levels of dioxin as the same species in Ball Club Lake, which was chosen as a "reference" lake because it is unaffected by the St. Regis pollution

The report, completed this spring, confirms tribal concerns that the site has not been properly remediated and that the extent of the contamination and its movement is not well understood.

"We reached out to the University and a number of experts across the nation who were able to provide an independent review of the site and give us recommendations," said Shirley Nordrum, Leech Lake environmental director.

"Our concerns were confirmed by people who don't have a vested interest in this area, and I think the process was very valuable."

A full report is available on Minnesota Sea Grant's Web site at: www.seagrant.umn.edu/water/leech.html, but in general:

  • The groundwater panel recommends further investigations assessing groundwater contaminant flow patterns in order to protect nearby ground and surface waters.
  • The human health risk panel urges that steps be taken to minimize exposure of children to the site. The high levels of dioxins and furans warrant closure of the area. Because tribal members have unique cultural practices and lifestyles, the panel recommends that a customized human health risk assessment be performed.
  • The ecological risk panel concludes monitoring at the site was inadequate to determine ecological impacts and that more monitoring is needed.

Image of Pike Bay on Cass Lake. Both untreated and treated groundwater from the Superfund site flow into Pike Bay

Both untreated and treated groundwater from the Superfund site flow into Pike Bay on Cass Lake.

Closure of the site would include fencing and appropriate signage, as well as measures to prevent exposed soils from blowing off-site. The lack of signage is unusual compared to other Superfund sites she has visited, noted Nordrum. The company "did follow everything that was requested of them, and signage wasn't one of those things," she explained. "A lot of people were under the assumption they had done everything needed to make the site safe."

The number of agencies and groups involved makes the clean-up a slow, sometimes frustrating process, but that doesn't get Nordrum down for long. "If I look at where we were and what has been accomplished, I think we've accomplished a lot with a lot of different partners," she said. "I'm grateful for that."

Currently, the tribe is working with the EPA, Minnesota Department of Health, and the MPCA to negotiate with International Paper on a plan for emergency soil removal and additional soil sampling. The EPA is working with the Center for Disease Control and has promised to conduct comprehensive human health and ecological risk assessments. Sea Grant continues to work with Nordrum and others to better inform the community about risks associated with the site's contamination.

"Superfund sites such as this one are incredibly complex and difficult environmental issues to deal with," said Carl Richards, Minnesota Sea Grant director. "We're happy that the University was able to assist the tribe and other affected parties in focusing on the essential issues that could lead to improvement in human health and the ecological issues surrounding the site."

By Marie Zhuikov
July 2003

Return to July 2003 Seiche

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