ainted water threatens archives

by Todd Milbourn

The Elmer L. Andersen Library archives remain exposed to contaminated groundwater as talks between the University and Minnegasco have stalled over financial responsibility and competing proposals to safeguard the building.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in a January 1999 agreement with the University, called for the installation of an interception well to shield the archives from water contaminated by a former Minnegasco gas holder.
Despite the agreement and a University commitment to hire a contractor for the project by August 2000, no action has been taken and the building remains exposed to the tainted groundwater.
“They’ve just been real slow,” said Lynne Grigor, MPCA technical manager for the site.
“We’re having internal discussions and can force the issue. Still, we’re hoping to continue working on a voluntary basis,” she added.
University and MPCA officials attributed hydrogen sulfide levels in the library this summer to microorganisms associated with the polluted water.
In July, at least two Andersen library curators became ill after the gas collected in a mechanical room and spread through the ventilation system.
The pollution source at the center of the debate is a former gas holder buried underneath the West Bank softball fields, about 500 feet upgradiant of the archives. Minneapolis Gas Works, a former division of Minnegasco, stored raw and purified gas in the holder between 1893 and 1959.
The holder still contains levels of coal tar.
Acknowledging the potential environmental problems of developing the area, the University enrolled the Andersen library archives project in the MPCA’s Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup Program in 1996. The program provides technical assistance and offers liability protection for developers seeking to bring contaminated land back into productive use.
Working in consultation with the MPCA, the University drafted an interim response action plan for the project in January 1999. The plan called for the installation of a horizontal well that would intercept pollutants as they flowed from the gas holder downgradiant to the library.
Minnegasco objected to the horizontal well after conducting a feasibility study, saying that a vertical well would be as effective and less expensive to install.
Negotiations followed concerning funding issues associated with the project and the effectiveness of the respective well proposals.
In an effort to speed up the process, Grigor said the MPCA is considering reclassifying the area as a Superfund site.
A Superfund designation would mean government-mandated cleanup of the contaminated site through enforced installation of the well or extraction of the gas holder.
Grigor said the MPCA is also considering other options at their disposal.
Some critics say the well approach is flawed and will not sufficiently protect the library or ensure the safe development of the ballfield called for in the University Master Plan.
The proposed wells don’t take into account the impact of the building’s construction on the flow of ground water in the area, said Calvin Alexander, a University geology professor familiar with the project.
“It’s not in the right place. The building changed the hydrology of the system,” he said. “It needs to be further upgradiant.”
Gordon Girtz, an Environmental Health and Safety official heading the project, declined comment for this report.
Alexander said the University and Minnegasco should consider a more comprehensive solution to the problem.
“The fundamental issue is: Why has that tank base not been cleaned up?” Alexander said.
Alexander said safety issues, like this summer’s hydrogen sulfide problem, are likely to recur if the source is not removed.
“It’s going to be an ongoing problem,” he said.
The University Master Plan calls for student housing and academic buildings on the ballfield by 2003. Jan Morlock, University community relations spokesperson, said a more extensive cleanup would procede further development.
She did not say what such a cleanup would entail.
“The danger in doing it in one step is that you don’t know if it worked,” Alexander said. “There might be other sources.”
Another former gas holder exists below the ground where Bridge No. 9 meets Riverview Tower. There are also abandoned pipelines in the area.
Differences between the University and Minnegasco aren’t likely to be reconciled in the near future.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to come to any agreement quickly,” said Patty Pederson, a Minnegasco spokesperson.
But, in any case, Morlock added, “something has to be done soon.”

Todd Milbourn welcomes comments at [email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3234