EPA takes on arsenic contamination in south Minneapolis

The EPA has been replacing low-level contaminated soil since 2004.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

Megan Koester , a Seward resident on 24th Avenue South, looked outside her window to see a group of people wearing white suits, orange hats, and boots removing soil from the house across the street. The University of Minnesota theater junior said she didnâÄôt know who they were or what they were doing, until her roommate asked them. Koester later discovered they were a group of Environmental Protection Agency workers who have been removing arsenic-contaminated soil in the Seward neighborhood since September. âÄúI didnâÄôt know what the implications of this were,âÄù Koester said. âÄúNo oneâÄôs told me anything but I assume I donâÄôt have to worry.âÄù The source of the arsenic is a plant site on the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and 28th Street that used to produce pesticides containing arsenic from 1938 to 1968. The plant has since closed, but the EPA believes the wind blew the metal onto several properties throughout south Minneapolis. The arsenic cleanup process began after the Minnesota Department of Agriculture determined in 1996 that several properties in south Minneapolis were contaminated. Two hundred of the sampled properties had higher levels of contamination, but they were cleaned from 2004 to 2008. Tim Prendiville , the remedial project manager for the EPAâÄôs Midwest region said the organization wasnâÄôt aware of the contamination until the Minnesota Department of Transportation tested the soil as part of a redevelopment project on Hiawatha Avenue more than 10 years ago. âÄúThe properties weâÄôre cleaning up now are at lower levels [of contamination],âÄù Prendiville said. âÄúThereâÄôs still a concern but itâÄôs not an immediate health threat.âÄù âÄúArsenic is pretty rare,âÄù EPA spokesperson Nick Hans said. âÄúThis is the only city that weâÄôve seen arsenic contamination of this scale in the Great Lake states.âÄù The metal can be dangerous because itâÄôs a known carcinogen, said University of Minnesota cell chemistry professor Paul Bloom . âÄúThe concern for long-term low-level exposure like this would be the ingestion of dust and the thickening of skin in adults from overexposure,âÄù he said. This is called keratosis. However, this is low-level exposure that âÄúisnâÄôt a big deal,âÄù said Daniel Pena , an environmental scientist for the Minnesota Department of Health . Pena also said the arsenic canâÄôt contaminate the cityâÄôs tap water because the drinking water doesnâÄôt come from ground wells. The main concern the EPA has is preventing children from playing in or eating contaminated soil. Prendiville said the best method to prevent spreading the arsenic is washing your hands after handling the soil. Since 2004, the EPA has collected soil samples from more than 3,000 properties in the 1,480-acre area, which includes industrial, residential and commercial properties. The EPA was able to accelerate its cleanup process significantly after it was provided with $20 million in stimulus funds in August from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project is expected to be complete in 2011. Both the EPA and the Minnesota Department of Health have been working to notify residents and property owners about the contamination since they discovered it. âÄúWeâÄôve been making tremendous effort. ItâÄôs been difficult,âÄù Pena said. âÄúSometimes tenants are new, residents move in and out, and sometimes people say they havenâÄôt heard about this.âÄù He said the EPA knocked on doors and sent notices asking residents for permission to replace their soil. There was also an open house in 2007. Leon Harder is a resident on 24th Avenue South where the cleanup is taking place. He said the EPA sent him an informational notice two years ago, then took samples of his soil, but never sent him a report on their findings. âÄúWhen youâÄôve got them cleaning up in the houses in front, behind and next to you, it makes you wonder what the deal is,âÄù he said. âÄúThey said theyâÄôd get back to me. TheyâÄôve already started on the yard behind. I hope it means they havenâÄôt found arsenic in my soil.âÄù