Toxic soil removed from Como student housing

The University completed the first phase of cleanup at the building on Friday.

by Danielle Nordine

Lead, arsenic, copper and other contaminants have long been present in the soil near the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Como Student Community Cooperative. Friday, the University completed the first phase of cleanup at the building, which is home to many graduate studentsâÄô families and Como Community Child Care. The contaminated soil was discovered by University employees on Sept. 18, 2008 while they were performing a routine re-waterproofing procedure on the building, said Janet Dalgleish, a University environmental planner. The first phase of the cleanup was completed Friday after crews finished removing 10,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site in an operation that took two months and cost about $1 million. Contaminants like lead can have serious health effects, especially for children under 6, because they affect brain development, said Daniel Symonik, supervisor for the Minnesota Department of HealthâÄôs Environmental Impacts Analysis Unit. The levels of toxins found in the soil were up to 4,000 parts per million, which is 40 times the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recommended level, said Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association. There was an incinerator located on the site from 1939 to 1960, Eibenholzl said. The toxins may have spread with the ash, and the community wants the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to look beyond the UniversityâÄôs boundaries and test for contaminants in the rest of the neighborhood. But the current cleanup only deals with toxins within the property boundaries, Eibenholzl said. The Minnesota Pollution Control AgencyâÄôs Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup Program usually handle situations like âÄúa mom-and-pop gas station that had a leaky underground storage tank âĦ ItâÄôs not the kind of level of contamination where whole sections of their property are contaminated,âÄù Eibenholzl said. But cleaning up the toxins is expensive. The University applied for an environmental response fund grant from Hennepin County at the end of October in 2008. âÄúWe had the money in our handsâÄù by Aug. 9, Dalgleish said. Grants from Hennepin County have provided $712,000 for the cleanup effort, while University housing and residential life has spent between $200,000 and $300,000. Grant applications are currently in place to finish the cleanup, and Dalgleish said the University hopes to have the situation remedied by spring or summer. Most of the Southeast Como community didnâÄôt find out about the possible hazard until a resident read about money being awarded to clean up the area, Eibenholzl said. He said this prompted calls, and community members met with Lynne Grigor of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Oct. 27. âÄúWe werenâÄôt aware that anything was happening there; no one had contacted us,âÄù Eibenholzl said. If residents see lots of dump trucks and people wearing Haz-Mat suits around, âÄúit can be kind of scary when you donâÄôt know whatâÄôs going on,âÄù he said. The Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup Program is looking at other instances of contamination in the area, including groundwater contamination and the potential risk of vapor from contaminated ground water entering buildings, Program Supervisor Barbara Jackson said. Ground water and soil gas samples are planned for the UniversityâÄôs next phase of work, she said.