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 didn’t 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.
“I didn’t know what the implications of this were,” Koester said. “No one’s told me anything but I assume I don’t have to worry.”
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 EPA’s Midwest region said the organization wasn’t 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.
“The properties we’re cleaning up now are at lower levels [of contamination],” Prendiville said. “There’s still a concern but it’s not an immediate health threat.”
“Arsenic is pretty rare,” EPA spokesperson Nick Hans said. “This is the only city that we’ve seen arsenic contamination of this scale in the Great Lake states.”
The metal can be dangerous because it’s a known carcinogen, said University of Minnesota cell chemistry professor Paul Bloom . “The concern for long-term low-level exposure like this would be the ingestion of dust and the thickening of skin in adults from overexposure,” he said. This is called keratosis.
However, this is low-level exposure that “isn’t a big deal,” said Daniel Pena , an environmental scientist for the Minnesota Department of Health . Pena also said the arsenic can’t contaminate the city’s tap water because the drinking water doesn’t 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.
“We’ve been making tremendous effort. It’s been difficult,” Pena said. “Sometimes tenants are new, residents move in and out, and sometimes people say they haven’t heard about this.”
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.
“When you’ve got them cleaning up in the houses in front, behind and next to you, it makes you wonder what the deal is,” he said. “They said they’d get back to me. They’ve already started on the yard behind. I hope it means they haven’t found arsenic in my soil.”