Como residents sue General Mills over TCE

Residents filed two class-action suits against General Mills last week over the vapor.

Kia Farhang

Southeast Como residents filed two class-action lawsuits against General Mills on Thursday after several neighborhood homes tested positive for high levels of a potentially dangerous chemical.

Both suits allege thattrichloroethylene, or TCE, dumped decades ago from a former General Mills site has threatened residents’ health and lowered property values.

State health officials notified residents last month that vapor containing TCE could potentially be seeping into their basements. Engineers have since tested more than 70 neighborhood homes, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

More than half of the homes with available results tested above the department’s threshold and need to be cleared by installing ventilation systems. Prolonged TCE exposure can lead to birth defects and kidney and liver cancers.

A spokeswoman for General Mills said the company doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

General Mills dumped TCE on its former Hennepin Avenue site for 15 years as part of its chemical research efforts, according to the MPCA.

The company paid to clean up the property starting in 1985, even though it had sold the land four years earlier. Those cleanup efforts ended in 2010, when state officials determined TCE levels were low enough.

Norman Berger, a Chicago attorney prosecuting one of the suits, said he’s handled a number of similar cases before and that the Southeast Como situation is the worst of its kind he’s ever seen.

“It’s a very strong case,” Berger said.

He said several people had already called to join the lawsuit, but he couldn’t give an exact number.

Berger called the TCE levels in some neighborhood homes “alarmingly high.”

But Rita Messing, a Minnesota Department of Health toxicologist, said the results fall into a gray area.

“They’re not levels that the health department would consider safe, but they’re not high enough to be obviously unsafe,” she said.

A health department analysis found the number of birth defects in Southeast Como fell in normal ranges compared to the rest of the state, Messing said, and the department is doing a similar analysis of cancer rates across the neighborhood.

TCE susceptibility depends on several factors, Messing said, including age and the amount of exposure. Students who live in the neighborhood for only a year have a much lower risk of negative health effects than long-term residents.

Jill Ruzicka, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 38 years, filed the other suit against General Mills. Her suit calls for the company to set up at least one trust fund to periodically monitor neighborhood residents’ health and pay for any treatment they may need.

Firm urges against class-action suits

At a meeting with community members Saturday morning at the Van Cleve Recreation Center, representatives from the Los Angeles law firm Girardi Keese cautioned residents against joining a class-action suit. The firm is encouraging residents to use Girardi Keese to sue General Mills individually.

Bob Bowcock, an environmental consultant for the firm, told the roughly 100 meeting attendees that suing the company individually makes more sense because TCE has affected everyone differently.

Members of Girardi Keese have won several high-profile lawsuits in the past, including the case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company that was later dramatized in the film “Erin Brockovich.”

“The levels I’ve seen explain why I got on a plane and came here so fast,” Bowcock said.

He said he wants the MPCA to lay out individual remediation plans for each home to address specific risks, along with a comprehensive plan to clean up the entire affected area.

He also questioned the TCE testing procedures that General Mills contractors used, saying they should test for other chemicals as well.

If the firm represents any Southeast Como residents who want to move, Bowcock said, they’ll ask General Mills to buy their homes rather than go through with litigation.

“People buy totaled cars all the time,” he said. “It’s the same concept.”

Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents Southeast Como, said he’s already heard from a few residents who would rather sell their homes and leave the neighborhood than deal with a lawsuit.

Gordon said the fact that General Mills is still functioning and profitable makes it more likely for residents to win compensation if they go to court.

Several Southeast Como residents at the meeting said they were willing to let Girardi Keese represent them. Others said they needed more time to decide whether to sue General Mills at all.

Resident Paul Caspersen said he’s concerned that the TCE will cause neighborhood property values to sink. He said his home tested many times higher than the state’s TCE threshold.

“If this plays out, we’re never going to be able to sell our house,” he said.

Caspersen said he’s not yet sure whether he’ll sue General Mills but doesn’t know what other options he and his wife have.