General Mills lawsuit moves forward

A new study has outlined the future of cleanup in and around the area.

Sophie Wiitala

Residents of the University of Minnesota’s Southeast Como neighborhood may soon be able to advance their lawsuit against the company that allegedly dumped harmful chemicals nearby. 

The residents are suing General Mills for exposing homes and businesses to trichloroethylene — a toxic chemical known as TCE.  Meanwhile, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency outlined plans to protect impacted citizens in a study released in April.

The case began as a class action lawsuit by residents in February 2015 but faced an appeal by General Mills over classifying the suit as class action. Now, the US Court of Appeals will soon rule on whether the class action certification is allowed.

While the MPCA says mitigation efforts are sufficient, the proponents of the lawsuit want more aggressive clean-up and compensation for damages. 

Gordon Rudd, managing partner at Zimmerman Reed Attorneys and one of the lawyers representing the Como residents, said if the certification is denied they would have to continue the suit individually.

Reed said there isn’t much his clients can do until they hear back about the class action certification but said the appeals courts should return a ruling “any time.”

In the meantime, the MPCA continues to install mitigation systems to filter out toxic vapors in businesses and residential homes within the General Mills contamination area.

MPCA officials decided the use of these mitigation techniques was more effective and cost-efficient than attempting to clean the soil at the TCE dumping site, according to the study.

The plan instead relies on natural degradation to remove TCE from the soil and groundwater.

Tim Grape, MPCA project manager for the General Mills site, said this process could take years or decades to remove the TCE from the environment. 

Dr. Paige Novak, professor at the University’s Biotechnology Institute, said TCE is extremely difficult to locate because it sinks through the groundwater.

Novak said the interaction of TCE and groundwater is like “vinegar and oil in a dressing.” The two separate, and because TCE is heavier than water, it sinks further and further into the ground, making the process of locating it difficult. 

Because it takes so long to find TCE in the groundwater and soil, the most attainable step is to stop the chemical vapors coming from the ground from harming residents. 

Although the MPCA estimates approximately 7,000 pounds of TCE were removed from the area between 1985 and 2010, even small amounts can be dangerous.

Novak said breathing in the vapors is extremely dangerous because the amount of air we breathe over long periods of time allows for higher TCE concentrations in the body.

The vapors can cause birth defects as well as kidney and liver cancers if absorbed over a long enough time span.