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Cass Lake Superfund Update

Scenic image of Cass Lake.

The scenic Cass Lake shoreline of the St. Regis Superfund Site belies the contamination of the area.

Except for several fenced areas with “No Trespassing” signs and some burnt-out buildings, the scene at the federal Superfund site neighborhood in Cass Lake, Minn. has not changed much over the past two years. Modest homes of bright blues, greens, and reds line a mix of dirt and paved roads. Yards are festooned with American flags, children’s toys, old cars, and a few hopeful “For Sale” signs.

The neighborhood’s appearance is soon to change, however. At a November meeting in the local elementary school, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) described plans to remove the soil surrounding about 40 residences and the carpets and dust from within them.

The problem is, the soil around the homes is contaminated with arsenic and dioxin left over from wood-preserving activities when the property was owned by St. Regis Paper in the late 1950s. International Paper Co. currently owns the property, which is part of the Leech Lake Reservation.

Evaluation and clean-up have taken years, beginning when the area was named a Superfund site in 1984. Contaminated ground water necessitated hooking up the homes to municipal water and installing monitoring wells and a containment vault for soil already excavated from the site.

Sea Grant and the Natural Resources Research Institute became involved in 1998 (see “Sea Grant Aids Superfund Site Clean-Up”) by helping the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe convene a panel of experts to report on what more needed to be done to assess human health risks on the site, which the EPA then used to guide subsequent activities. The University team also initiated the first survey of wood preservation contaminants in nearby Cass Lake and Pike Bay sediments, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. This effort led to a more intensive survey by the EPA, which was recently finalized and will be posted on the EPA Web site: www.epa.gov/region5/sites/stregis/.

At the November meeting, EPA staff described results from tests of 10 Superfund site homes, reporting that six exceeded safe values of arsenic and dioxin for human health based on a 70-year residence time. They also described plans to improve the ground water extraction system, which has removed several tons of pentachlorophenols and PAH compounds since 1988.

The soil- and house-cleaning is considered an “interim action” during the process of selecting a final resolution for site clean-up explained Tim Drexler, EPA remedial project manager. Negotiations for a final resolution could last two years while contamination remains at levels requiring immediate action.

“That’s why we chose not to wait,” said Drexler. “These actions will quickly reduce the level of exposure to residents.”

Are residents happy with the interim fix? In news reports, they express frustration at the length of time remediation has taken. Several residents attending the meeting would not discuss the issue because they are involved in litigation concerning the site. However, an EPA survey of residents in June 2005 found that half of those responding preferred relocation. The other half preferred the cleaning measures.

Dust suppression on neighborhood dirt roads was added as a control measure in response to public comments from the survey, although Drexler explained that a specific method has not been chosen. The EPA expects the cleaning to begin sometime in January, weather permitting, at a cost of $660,000.

When asked why there are no contamination warning signs around the site, Drexler said, “If all of the property belonged to International Paper, it was be easier to do something like that. But it belongs to multiple owners, so signage is more difficult.”

Rita Messing with the Minnesota Department of Health said the department has been working with Cass Lake area health care providers to help them communicate health risk information to residents.

“We are very pleased that action is finally being taken to protect the health of people living in the contaminated area,” said Shirley Nordrum, Leech Lake environmental director, “but it shouldn’t have taken this long.”

By Marie Zhuikov
December 2005

Return to December 2005 Seiche

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