EPA’s arsenic cleanup criticized


Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials in charge of arsenic cleanup for the Southside Superfund site came under criticism by the City of Minneapolis and neighborhood residents at a hearing for plan proposals held June 11 at the Midtown YWCA.

At the meeting, EPA presented its estimates for what it considered “reasonable maximum exposure risk” for people living in the affected Seward, Longfellow, Corcoran, Phillips and Ventura Village neighborhoods. Cleanup project managers told some 35 attendees that they had settled on a $17.9 million, four-year plan that would remove soil with arsenic levels above 25 mg/kg to a depth of 12 inches—18 inches in gardens. Soil with arsenic levels above 95 mg/kg would be removed at a depth deeper than 12 inches, and to prevent exposure to contamination below 12 inches where cleanup isn’t possible, legal controls like tenant notification, building permits and deed restrictions would be put in place.

Concluding that a “background” arsenic level of 16 kg/mg was normal for the area and citing other sources for the presence of arsenic in the soil, such as ashes from coal-fired furnaces, use of fertilizers and pesticides and presence of the substance in nature, EPA said that removal of a threshold 25 mg/kg arsenic contamination on 488 properties would meet appropriate requirements for the protection of human health and the environment.

“There are no long-term studies done about exposure to arsenic, so saying there’s no difference between 16 and 25 parts per million is callous,” said Minneapolis 9th Ward Council Member Gary Schiff. Schiff said he will introduce a resolution at the full City Council’s next meeting on June 20 to call for EPA to adopt a 16 kg/mg, or background contamination level for the cleanup, a plan that would mean additional 143 properties at the cost of another $5 million, according to EPA figures.

“You’ve got to look a lot deeper and do some critical thinking,” said EPA project manager Tim Prendiville. “It’s not going to decrease the risk factor to clean those additional properties,” Prendiville said.

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Health told the group that a survey of the incidence of cancers related to arsenic exposure in the affected Southside neighborhoods did not show anything out of the ordinary.

“Four years for the cleanup is very upsetting to me,” said one neighborhood woman who said her children would be past the age of wanting to play in her yard by the time the EPA’s decontamination plans were completed.

“I would support Council Member Schiff’s resolution for a background level cleanup,” said 2nd Ward Council Member Cam Gordon. “I also think EPA is putting too much emphasis on the short-term effectiveness of their plans,” Gordon said.

EPA has already completed decontamination of 163 Southside properties with levels of 95 kg/mg arsenic or more, those with the highest levels found in the Superfund site. Thirty-four more such properties remain to be excavated, with work expected to be completed by the end of the year. Cleanups become more difficult as the number of properties rises, say EPA planners, citing the difficulty of obtaining access and other community factors.

“We disagree with those who say we’re taking the easy route,” said EPA’s Prendiville. “Since 2004, we’ve collected soil samples from more than 3,000 properties in the area,” Prendiville said.