Students could be left out of toxin tests

Como property owners must agree to have their buildings tested.

Kia Farhang

Some officials are concerned University of Minnesota students in the Southeast Como neighborhood may not know their homes could contain dangerous levels of a chemical solvent linked to birth defects and certain cancers.

After soil vapors in the neighborhood tested higher than normal for trichloroethylene, or TCE, officials are asking property owners for permission to test their homes — a process that may require help from tenants.

But despite the neighborhood’s proximity to the University and its abundance of rental housing, only a few of about 80 residents at a public meeting Tuesday were students. Another meeting was held in the evening.

“We would want students to know, because we’re going to need their cooperation, too,” said Tom Forsythe, vice president for global communications at General Mills. The company disposed of TCE on its former site in the neighborhood for 15 years as part of its chemical research efforts.

Property owners, not renters, must agree to let General Mills’ contractors into their homes to test for the chemical, but renters may be one of the best resources available to officials because they know how to reach their landlords.

Property owners signed approximately 30 access agreements at the Tuesday meetings. Starting next week, General Mills is paying to test about 200 Southeast Como properties for TCE.

General Mills representatives and state health officials answered residents’ questions at the meeting Tuesday at the Van Cleve Recreation Center. Forsythe said the turnout for the afternoon meeting exceeded his expectations.

But the crowd of residents was an older one, and it didn’t represent the neighborhood’s sizable student population.

Environmental science senior Gretel Lee said she thought the recent spate of violence around the neighborhood — including an alleged sexual assault near Van Cleve Park last month — may have distracted students from the soil vapor issue, which surfaced last week when health officials sent letters to residents.

Lee plans to share the information she learned at the meeting with her roommates and other students, she said. She’s also already reached out to her landlord about scheduling a TCE test.

“I think so far he’s on board with getting it tested,” Lee said.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, represents Southeast Como and other University neighborhoods. She said keeping property owners informed should be the main priority because owners have the final say over whether any tests occur.

“The students aren’t the ones who have to give the access,” Kahn said.

Many officials agreed that wrangling property owners into signing the agreements will likely be the most difficult part of the testing process, especially because some live outside the state.

Robin Garwood, a policy aide for Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon, said it could be helpful for officials to hold a meeting exclusively for property owners to get them all in one place.

Depending on how many owners agree to tests, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may look into whether the city can draft an ordinance requiring property owners to comply, said MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka.

Local property owner Teresa Christensen signed the agreement at the public meeting. She said her 50-unit neighborhood apartment building houses only students.

“Landlords have a responsibility,” Christensen said. “[But] it depends on the owner. … You have good landlords; you have bad landlords.”