Poisoned neighborhood

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Dangerous quantities of arsenic have turned up in 700 yards of homes near Hiawatha Avenue and E. 28th Street, Minneapolis, in the Phillips and Longfellow neighborhoods. The area is home to many low-income families and people of color.

Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon has introduced an ordinance to require property owners to inform tenants and home buyers where there is arsenic in the soil. A hearing on the rule will be at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12.

“We’re calling on the EPA to clean up all 700 contaminated yards,” said Paula Maccabbee, consultant to Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM). “It’s a priority, not in two years or five years, but right away.”

She was representing Congressional candidate Keith Ellison, EJAM board chairman (who was out of town) during a Sept. 27 news conference at the home of Gwyneth Olson and Mark Copenhaver at 31st Street and 15th Avenue S. They have a two-year-old daughter, Frances.

“We’ve been here six years and had no idea about the contamination until the soil was tested this summer,” said Olson. The soil in her yard was found to have an extremely high concentration of arsenic, at 562 parts per million.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is clearing out soil a foot or more deep from her yard and 200 others that have turned up “acute” levels of arsenic (95 parts per million).

But Olson and others said they worry about neighbors with lower levels of arsenic that are not being cleared but may still be toxic, especially for children who may put soil or soiled objects in their mouths. Arsenic increases the risk of cancer and neurological disorders

“A lot of native and Chicano people are being affected,” said Steve Black, representing the local American Indian Movement. “We appreciate the EPA for at least testing the area, but go a little further and they’ll probably find more contamination in the soil.”

Authorities say that the arsenic probably blew across an area twenty blocks wide from the 28th and Hiawatha site where a series of companies made and stored pesticides forty years ago and more.

What about arsenic illnesses?
“We’ve been extremely concerned about the failure of state and federal agencies to get good answers on the long-term effects,” said Minnesota Rep. Karen Clark, whose own yard was acutely contaminated and cleared. The Women’s Environmental Institute, which Clark heads, has hired its own scientist, Dr. Cecilia Martinez, to investigate the health effects on the area’s people.

Clark said that the institute hopes to persuade state and federal agencies to follow suit. So far, she said they have argued that a health assessment would not be “meaningful” because the area is home to people who frequently move.

“We reject that,” Clark said, adding that position discriminates against low-income people who are renters. “Communities and people have a right to know what is in their back yard.”

Reached by telephone at his Chicago office, EPA remedial project manager Tim Prendiville confirmed that health authorities believe that a “meaningful” study requires monitoring people who stay at a given location for many years.

But he added that the EPA may clear soil from more homes. The 200 so far identified as needing soil replacement were the most urgent ones, he said.

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