U of M removing toxic waste from family student housing site


The University of Minnesota has quickly, if quietly, begun to address threats posed by a toxic waste dump it discovered under student family housing in Southeast Minneapolis. The university found the toxins under three buildings on a four-city-block residential complex last year.

On Sept. 18, 2008, workers digging a trench at the Como Student Community Cooperative found ash and debris in the ground at its complex. Samples tested that day showed high levels of several toxins, including arsenic and lead. More tests revealed more hazards, so within days, on an emergency basis, the university hauled away 558 tons of contaminated dirt to a landfill in Rosemount.


The university last week finished the first phase of cleanup work, bringing the total amount of soil removed so far to 10,000 tons.

For generations, children have lived and played on the land along East Hennepin Avenue between 27th and 29th avenues SE. And for generations, it seems, the soil around the houses has held rich deposits of lead and arsenic – so much so that a handful of dirt ingested by a child, “if it was from a hot spot, could potentially cause brain damage,” according to Lynne Grigor, project coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Toxins were detected from eight inches to eight feet below ground. Forty-eight soil tests revealed no pattern to the hot spots that would allow targeted removal.

Acting rapidly (compared to the usual pace for such projects) with more than $700,000 from Hennepin County and about $200,000 of its own money, the university last week finished the first phase of cleanup around two of the buildings, hauling away another 9,457 tons of soil.

With another application pending with the county’s brownfield fund, the university hopes to complete the cleanup next year.

Evidence of widespread effects on residents has not emerged. Several children have been tested, CSCC residents and staff said, but no one had heard of anyone showing high lead levels. University of Minnesota Environmental Health specialist Janet Dalgliesh said she knows of one case of elevated levels, for an unrelated toxin.

But it’s unclear whether that’s because the toxic dirt from the dump hasn’t affected anyone, or because people who have been affected haven’t yet been tested.

Jim Kelly, a health risk assessor at the Minnesota Department of Health, said his agency gets involved when local authorities request public health advice, or when blood tests reveal elevated lead levels in children. Neither has happened yet with CSCC, where several people said that the only tests specially spurred by the discovery – on older boys who dug deep in the dirt – didn’t have alarming results.

State law requires notification to the department only if a child younger than age six has more than 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, explained Erik Zabel, who works with immigrant populations for the department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. The brains of children develop more quickly at that age and they’re more likely to get dirt in their mouths, he said.

In any case, Zabel said, the state doesn’t have responsibility to inspect for lead in Minneapolis, which has its own health department and lead-poisoning prevention programs, as well as a good rate of kids being tested.

Who knew what when?

Families of international students – married or in domestic partnerships – occupy just over half of CSCC’s 360 apartments (48 percent are from the United States or Canada, 18 percent from China). About 40 percent of the families have children, for a total population of about 1,000, according to General Manager Gerald Erickson, who has been at CSCC for 30 years and said he was surprised to learn about the pollution after the contractors found it last year.

CSCC seen from above. The area where toxins were found in soil is around the three buildings at the north (upper) end of the complex. Photo: Google Maps

CSCC from above. Toxins were found in soil around the three buildings at the north (upper) end of the complex. Photo: Google Maps

Once the contamination was discovered, Erickson said he left communication about it to the university’s Environmental Health staff, which provided email updates and fliers for residents and spoke at three co-op board meetings.

Board president Kendra Hernandez said the university offered to hold a special meeting for CSCC residents, but the board declined after no residents showed up at its board meeting for an announced university presentation on the topic. “There was never really a huge outcry” among residents, Hernandez said. The biggest complaint may have been about the orange fencing that kept people off the CSCC’s one recreation field and playground with swings. (An on-site child care center also used those play spaces, according to CSCC staff.)

One resident of a building where soil is being replaced, Rachel Dittli, said she considered the notices residents received adequate. But her husband, Albin, said he had concerns about dirt from the cleanup work blowing through windows into the apartment, including onto their kitchen table.

Another resident, Kaying Thao, has been less satisfied with the information she has seen since moving to a CSCC apartment in June. When she heard workers were removing ash, she thought they meant trees. Thao first learned details about the pollution Nov. 4, at a meeting of the broader neighborhood group, the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA), which has made environmental efforts a priority since a pair of nearby chemical-plant fires in the late 1990s.

Two possibly affected populations are more in the dark. Residents living across the street only got notice about the pollution last week, thanks to a SECIA volunteer. Grigor said her agency will review whether adjacent properties can join the queue for state Superfund money. SECIA Environmental Coordinator Justin Eibenholtzl said he was disappointed that neither neighbors or the neighborhood group were notified.

Grigor said the pollution-control agency was also concerned about past residents of the dump-site housing, who wouldn’t know about the pollution at their former homes and may have moved to other polluted areas, increasing risks due to cumulative exposure. But while the MPCA has sometimes tried to track down people in similar situations, the health risks at CSCC aren’t high enough to trigger that sort of response, she said.

People tend to live at CSCC for only two to four years (and must move after seven), so exposure periods for individual residents are limited – a consideration in assessing risks, said the university’s Dalgleish. Short stays meant risks haven’t been “undue,” she said, but once the university learned of the pollution, any risk beyond a residential standard was “unacceptable.”

But high turnover at CSCC also means thousands of former residents don’t know they were living on a toxic waste dump.

Theories and skeptics

How did the ash get there and why did the university build housing on it?

The ash likely came from a municipal incinerator that operated in South Minneapolis from the 1930s until 1960, said Dalgleish, but dumping stopped after the university acquired the property in 1945.

Since 1947, thousands of young parents and children have lived in homes provided by the university on that property. First came quonset huts and trailers where families of G.I. Bill veterans set up housekeeping in the 1940s and 1950s. Then in the 1970s and 1980s came CSCC.

If construction crews noticed the ash in 1982, they may have seen it more for its advantages in building foundations than for its potential hazards. Although the federal Superfund laws were in place by then, contractors’ attitudes and practices concerning polluted building sites didn’t fully change until 1990, she said.

Photo by Chris Steller, Minnesota Independent

Photo by Chris Steller, Minnesota Independent

A good theory?

“I think that’s absolutely it,” said Tim Busse, a spokesman for University Services, which includes both Environmental Services and Facilities Management departments. “Attitudes have changed,” he said. The university would not build housing on an ash dump now, he said, but he doesn’t think the university is going to investigate why it happened 27 years ago. “Rather than trying to fix blame, the idea is now to fix the problem and get it cleaned up for the residents,” Busse said.

But the incinerator-dump theory has some detractors among older neighborhood residents.

Joe Stimark, who turned 87 on Monday, still lives in the house where he was born, three blocks from CSCC. He remembers playing baseball there, on what were then open fields. He can tick off the factories and other industrial neighbors down through the decades. He doesn’t remember a dump at the CSCC site.

Dave Williams, 88, a neighborhood resident since 1943, lives a block away from CSCC. Long in the excavation business, he knows how the lay of the land has been altered over the years but recalls no dump on the CSCC site. His guess: the university brought in fill to make a sloping site more level for the post-war quonset huts.

Also skeptical is Connie Sullivan, a neighborhood resident since 1977 and local historian since retiring from the university faculty. Her research shows the land sat unused as railroad property for 50 years before the university bought it.

Whenever the toxic ash arrived and whatever its source, one thing is certain: young people were playing on it. Like her father before her, Stimark’s daughter, Mary Gregg, and her neighborhood friends played hide-and-seek amid waist-high grass there in the late 1950s and 1960s, after the quonsets were gone. Boys drove go-carts there, coming home splattered with mud.

In the 1970s, intramural university softball teams played on three diamonds over the dump site, recalled alum Andy Mickel.

Now, the soil under the polluted play areas has all been removed and replaced. But the long delay put a strain on families with children, said Hernandez, the co-op board president, who coaches a kids’ soccer team on the play field. The pollution cleanup’s pace may have been quick by state standards, she said, but it didn’t feel that way to residents.

“Our big field was out of commission for so long,” she said. “People said, ‘Are they ever going to be done?'”