Last spring’s warm weather brought something less desirable for Laura Muessig: an unpleasant scent that she described as “like lighter fluid for an outside grill.”
Muessig approached her Seward neighbors and found that they, too, were suffering from the odor. Eventually, they identified the culprit: a pesticide-treated utility pole, installed in the late winter by Xcel Energy to replace an old one. The pole, in the alley behind 2530 38th Ave. S., is just one of 15 that were replaced last year in Seward. (Two more will be replaced in Seward by April 15, according to Xcel.) Last year, Xcel identified 753 poles for replacement, the majority in Minneapolis, as part of its regular ongoing maintenance. 227 had been installed by early December.
Under its current contract, Xcel uses poles treated with pentachlorophenol, a pesticide known as PCP or “penta.” Used widely during the middle of the 20th century, penta is a known toxin that is currently approved for specific use as a heavy-duty wood preservative in utility poles and crossarms.
Seward residents want the “penta pole” removed and the use of penta-treated poles discontinued in the neighborhood and perhaps even the city beyond. After the emergence of the problem pole, the Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG) board passed a resolution asking that Xcel remove the pole and seek alternative, “nontoxic” materials to be used instead; and that Xcel notify SNG where the other recently installed poles are and give advance notice of when and where poles would be replaced in the future.
Responding to questions from The Bridge, Xcel Energy says it has no plans to discontinue the use of penta-treated poles. “Xcel Energy/NSP has been installing penta-treated poles for more than 40 years,” stated Xcel Senior Media Relations Representative Patti Nystuen in an email. “They are the industry standard, and Xcel Energy has more than 500,000 installed in our eight-state region.”
Most importantly, Xcel cites the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recertification just this fall — “after 20 years of studies” — of the use of penta to treat utility poles.
Neighborhood, Xcel at an impasse
Residents found themselves in an “agree-to-disagree” stalemate at a civil-yet-tense public meeting on Dec. 4 at Matthews Park. During prepared presentations and sometimes-lively question-and-answer segments, assembled residents — including Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon — lodged their concerns and questions about penta and power poles, while representatives from Xcel Energy, the Penta Council (a national organization representing the industry) and a utility-pole supplier defended the product and practice, outlining in detail the regulation, creation and distribution of penta and pesticide-treated utility poles.
While the meeting was, by and large, the “open and civil discussion” called for by moderator and Seward resident John Irvin, it seemed to end in an impasse, with residents largely mistrusting the EPA’s reregistration of penta — and wondering what the next step is with Xcel on the issue.
First registered as a wood preservative in 1936, pentachlorophenol was used in a variety of products and processes in the middle half of the last century. Today, it is only used as an outdoor wood preservative, such as in the treatment of utility poles. According to the EPA, approximately 36 million of the utility-owned wood poles in service have been treated with penta. The pesticide can extend the life of a pole to 30 years or more, while an untreated pole might last seven.
Penta itself is a toxin, and its manufacture produces the byproducts hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and dioxins, compounds that the EPA calls in its reregistration decision “inherently toxic, as well as environmentally persistent, and their presence may increase the ecological risk associated with the use of pentachlorophenol.”
In the detailed, 103-page decision — which outlines toxicity of penta and its related compounds, as well as the risks of exposure, alternatives and safety actions — the EPA reregistered penta for wood-preservative uses, stating that it “will not pose unreasonable risk to humans or the environment,” provided that some newly required mitigation measures be followed — most pertaining to the workplace where the poles are treated and handled.
Xcel voluntarily suspended its pole-replacement work from August until November, when the EPA’s decision came through — for which Gordon thanked them at the Dec. 4 meeting. However, Gordon continues to be concerned about Xcel’s use of penta-treated poles, and he is “trying to figure out what authority we have as a city,” he said. “I don’t know if we have any.” Like others, Gordon questioned the validity of the EPA’s findings.
“The credibility of the EPA isn’t that great,” he said. “A lot of people don’t trust it, but it’s also the fallback for that kind of thing. The response I get is: ‘It’s EPA approved.’”
The Xcel and industry case
The recently confirmed approval is key to Xcel’s defense of penta-treated poles, but Xcel and industry representatives sought to reassure concerned citizens at the Dec. 4 meeting in other ways, with an explanation of the creation and use of the pesticide and poles.
Alan Srock, director of design and construction for Xcel, gave an overview about its 40-year use of penta-treated utility poles, which make up 95 percent of its 500,000 poles currently in service.
When those poles are 33 percent decayed, they are replaced, Srock said. As for the type of pole used, “The bottom line is service reliability,” he said, adding that employee and customer safety also factor in. In the recent reregistration, the EPA summarized the benefits of and alternatives to penta-treated poles (outlined later in this story), a comparison based on “safety, environmental, efficacy and/or economic considerations.” Steel poles, for example, “may result in less human or environmental exposure to pentachlorophenol, [but] they also increase the likelihood of electrocution to workers” — a point Srock also made during the meeting.
Price is also a factor; Xcel sends out a request for proposals seeking the cheapest poles, Srock said during the meeting. Xcel currently buys its poles from the supplier Koppers, whose representative Troy Calabrese attended the Dec. 4 meeting. Calabrese said a penta-treated, 40-foot class-four pole costs about $275; Nystuen said in her email response that $350 is a more accurate number.
According to Calabrese, penta poles are treated at a volume of .38 pounds per cubic foot — the lowest possible retention, he pointed out. After treatment, the poles sit for two to three weeks, and the concentration is checked to confirm it meets specifications. The poles are then delivered to a Lakeville yard, where they sit for another few weeks, he said.
Calabrese was puzzled by the report of a strong odor from the Seward pole; he said he’s been in yards with thousands of the poles and could not smell them from 200 yards away.
John Wilkinson, of penta producer KMG and the Penta Council, introduced himself as “the bad guy” and further defended the chemical, citing the recent reregistration, the decades of “comprehensive review of toxicological studies.” He reiterated the EPA’s conclusion that utility-pole uses of penta are not likely to present a significant acute or chronic risk to people [or other organisms]; that the small amount of penta that may leach out of poles is unlikely to pose risks to humans via exposure; and that significant residential exposures to children are not anticipated.
“The dose is the danger,” Wilkinson argued with environmentally minded residents toward the end of the meeting, insisting that the level of penta in utility poles was not enough to cause risk.
Seward residents were unconvinced by the industry presentations. “Nothing I’ve read has convinced me I shouldn’t be very concerned,” said Muessig, adding that there is no study about penta’s use in “dense, urban areas” like Minneapolis. Worries among the assembled included penta leaching into the soil, kids touching the pole, inhalation and “nasty fumes” entering their home all day on warmer days, Muessig said.
Those in opposition point out that penta has been banned (or more accurately: “banned, withdrawn, severely restricted or not approved,” according to a United Nations report) in 26 countries, saying it’s just a matter of time before it’s totally eliminated.
“It’s a quality-of-life, health, environmental and economic issue all rolled into one,” Muessig said. “I was told there are no alternatives, but good alternatives do exist.”
Alternative poles and studies
Seward residents took the issue to the University of Minnesota’s Consumer Protection Law Clinic, which produced a 24-page review of the use of penta-treated poles in residential areas. The study cites 74 references — including EPA documents, industry studies and publications by the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and outlines the source and effects of human and environmental exposure to penta and its “carcinogenic toxins that are byproducts.”
The review concludes that penta “may cause substantial harm to humans and the environment, either through contact, groundwater contamination or inhalation.”
The review also points out the dangers in disposal of penta-treated poles, as well; common methods include disposal in landfills, incineration or recycling for other uses — including reuse by unwary consumers.
Finally, the review outlines alternatives to penta-treated poles, stating that “there are several reasonable, affordable and significantly less harmful alternatives available to replace penta” and “similarly toxic chemicals” like creosote and chromate copper arsenate, which are also used to treat wood poles.
Alternatives include “environmentally friendly wood preservatives” copper napthenate and alkaline copper quaternary, and other materials like concrete, steel, fiberglass and underground cables.
Xcel is considering other preservative options, Nystuen wrote, including creosote, chromated copper arsenate and copper naphthenate.
Xcel’s current request for proposals, “was written in such a way to consider a variety of options … and it also allows the vendors to suggest alternative options,” stated Nystuen.
Not just in Seward
Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA) said there were some “some pretty big stinkers” (replaced poles) in his area, as well.
Eibenholzl — whose organization was just awarded by the governor for its good-neighbor agreements to reduce emissions by nearby industries — thinks Seward faces an uphill battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting, he said. “Just because they’re in [EPA] compliance doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he added. “There’s a long history of that with dioxins.”
In the short run, Xcel has agreed to replace the problem pole near Muessig’s home, but the story is not over for her. “I’m not quitting until that pole gets removed,” she said, “and all the poles in Seward are removed.”