Arsenic Pollution in South Minneapolis

Arsenic is polluting South Minneapolis yards. Should it be cleaned up? If yes, how clean is clean? I hope this helps explain the current situation.

For some perspective, have you ever been in a situation where your car was making noises but you decided not to go to a mechanic because you could afford the repairs? What’s the point if you’re not going to be able to pay to fix problems the mechanic identifies, right?

There are similar issues facing the arsenic clean-up policies in South Minneapolis.

For those of you not familiar with the issue, several companies used to (1938-68) manufacture pesticides on a 5-acre lot at the NW corner of Hiawatha Ave and 28th St East. While the companies are long gone, the arsenic from the plant remained and disbursed well beyond the boundaries of the property.

South Minneapolis Arsenic Area

26 years passed and nobody did a thing about it. People went about their lives breathing in arsenic dust while their kids played in arsenic laden dirt.

In 1994, arsenic contamination was discovered on the former plant’s site.

11 years passed before the former pesticide plant property was finally cleaned up.

How will arsenic kill you? It’s a known carcinogen (can cause cancer), and has been linked to lung, skin (non-melanoma), bladder, and liver cancer. More info:

Exposure to low levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomitting, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts on the palms, soles, and torso. Skin contact with arsenic may cause redness and swelling. Several studies have shown that exposure to high levels of arsenic can increase the risk of several types of cancer.

What About the Neighborhoods?

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) tested the soil on residential properties for arsenic levels, and created this pretty map. The green diagonal line is Hiawatha Ave and the horizontal grid bar follow 28th St E:

Arsenic Dispersion Boundary Map
You can click on the map and the “All Sizes” link from the Flickr page to view larger versions.

A few quick observations regarding the above map:

  • It’s not clear to me how the radius of 0.8 miles came to be the boundary limit for testing.
  • It’s also not clear why that wasn’t expanded further East after finding high levels of arsenic in yards just within the arbitrary boundary.
  • Dark blue dots signify yards with low levels of arsenic. Most yards fall into this category.

What is a High Level?

Minneapolis City Councilman Gary Schiff sent out a newsletter earlier this week where he explained that properties with “very high” levels of arsenic are being cleaned up, with 160 out of 200 done to date.

Since 2004, the EPA has collected soil samples from more than 3,000 properties in the area. To date, nearly 200 properties have shown very high arsenic contamination levels, requiring emergency cleanup. Of these, about 160 will be cleaned up by late October.

Apparently, “very high” levels of arsenic is defined as 95 parts per million (PPM) or higher.

Schiff went on to explain the situation regarding properties with high, but not “very high” levels of arsenic (lower than 95PPM, but higher than what would be considered normal or safe):

The EPA is completing a health risk assessment of the affected neighborhoods this year, and will set a final cleanup goal. Superfund money will be made available for cleanup of residential properties that are below an arsenic concentration of 95 parts per million, but the final level of cleanup remains undetermined. Community input will be sought throughout the process. Click here for more information on the EPA’s activities.

So, the EPA is going to clean up yards beyond those testing above 95PPM. But how many? What’s the standard for removal?

What’s a safe level?

I don’t know, but I think I have a good idea of what a “normal” level is. 10PPM or less. That’s based on my observation of hundreds of blue dots on the map showing that yards without pollution seem to fall into that range.

Will all properties testing higher than 10PPM be cleaned up to reach that standard? Not likely.

Here’s how I think this is going to go down:

The EPA has a certain amount of money available to work on this project (referred to as a “cost ceiling”). They also know how much it costs to clean up a yard. With those two numbers in mind, they know how many yards they can afford to clean.

Let’s say they have enough money to clean 500 yards. If that’s the case, do you think they’re going to tell 1000 property owners that they’re living on poisonous property? Probably not. Clean-up or not, they should provide information to residents so they can make informed decisions on things like having a vegetable garden in arsenic contaminated soil.

What has the EPA done in other areas of the country?

I reviewed the EPA’s reports on other arsenic clean-ups around the country to find out what arsenic concentrations were used. Here is what I found ranked from least to most clean. Minneapolis current clean-up level is 95 ppm.

In Montana, an EPA clean-up was done on properties hitting 80 ppm (they’ve done better than Minneapolis):

On October 26, 1998, excavation and stockpiling of the contaminated arsenic soil and tailings pile was begun (Arsenic is the contaminant of concern; and, as determined by EPA toxicologists, the cleanup level is set for 80 parts per million);

In Colorado a clean-up addressed properties hitting more than 70 ppm for arsenic:

Lead and arsenic were the two metals identified to be of potential concern in some yards. Based on the investigation, EPA issued its final cleanup decision in 2003. EPA then began removing and replacing soil in yards where sampling results showed more than 400 parts per million (ppm) for lead and/or 70 ppm for arsenic.

It’s noted in a GE clean-up letter than Massachusetts defines arsenic levels of 40 ppm as a “potential Imminent Hazard”:

The preliminary pre-design investigation results indicate the detection of arsenic in two surface soil samples at concentrations that exceed the threshold set forth in the Massachusetts Contingency Pian (.MGP) for reporling a potential Imment Hazard for arsenic (40 ppm).

In Illinois, they treated properties with arsenic parts per million in the 20-40 ppm range:

PNA, under U.S. EPA oversight, began a time-critical removal action at the two yards in December 2003, excavating arsenic-impacted soil above about 20-40 milligrams per kilogram (“parts per million” or “ppm”) and disposing of the impacted soil in an off-site landfill.

In El Paso, TX, the EPA decided that 24 ppm should be the safety screening level, but ran into issues when the number of properties hitting that criteria exceeded their alloted clean-up budget (sound familiar?):

Since the signing of the current AM on July 10, 2002, the EPA has received validated laboratory results from approximately 1,843 residential properties and has determined that approximately 1,050 properties exceed the EPA and TCEQ screening levels of 500 ppm for lead and/or 24 ppm for arsenic (with 83 properties over 60 ppm arsenic and 39 properties over 1,500 ppm lead). Due to the large number of residential property soil sample results that exceed the screening levels, the removal costs will exceed the current $2 million ceiling. At the time of the signing of the original AM the number of properties in need of a removal action was not known.

In Washington, DC, arsenic clean-up of residents was conducted all the way down to 20 ppm:

The site-wide soil cleanup standard for arsenic has been finalized at 20 parts per million (ppm) by EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington DC Health Department.

A Cascade, Maryland Superfund site was reclaimed to 17 ppm:

A risk-based soil cleanup goal for arsenic of not to exceed 17 ppm was calculated to be protective of both child and adult residential receptors. This cleanup goal was met during the time-critical removal action. As a result, there is no unacceptable risk to human health for the current and future land use at OU9.

In Nebraska, a former battery recycling facility’s site is being reclaimed to “naturally-occurring levels” of 16 ppm:

Arsenic contamination would be cleaned up to naturally-occurring levels, with a calculated cleanup standard of 16 ppm.

As of today, Minneapolis’ clean-up efforts are represented by the big blue bar on the left side of this chart. Compare that to the standards applied elsewhere in the United States:

Arsenic Clean-Up border=

How Clean is Clean enough?

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the EPA and Minnesota Department of Health don’t plan on cleaning up arsenic to “naturally occurring background levels”:

What will the residential cleanup goal be for arsenic?
The emergency cleanups of residential properties by the EPA are presently based on an acute level of 95 parts per million (ppm).  While the local naturally occurring background level for arsenic has not been determined it is anticipated to be somewhere between ten (10) and seventeen (17) ppm.  The actual residential cleanup goal for arsenic in South Mpls is still under review by the EPA and MDH, but can be anticipated to be above the naturally occurring background level and below the acute level used for the emergency cleanups.

“Below the acute level” doesn’t sound all that great.

Does cleaner, but not clean, cut it for you? Is Massachusetts’ 40ppm “Imminent Hazard” guideline worth considering as a standard? Or, should Minneapolis receive the same treatment communities near Washington, DC  on in Nebraska received?

And, what about the areas East of the current testing boundaries? Many properties in this area likely test well above normal levels. Should we be pushing to have the testing boundaries extended?

When Gary Schiff says, “Community input will be sought throughout the process,” now you know why. It’s going to take public pressure to keep the EPA working on this issue in Minneapolis.

14 thoughts on “Arsenic Pollution in South Minneapolis”

  1. I vaguely remember hearing about this when I lived in North Phillips. The only useful thing I recall being told was that in potentially contaminated areas, grass in the yard was good, because it helped stabilize the soil and keep dirt/dust from going airborne.

    One thing I always wondered about was growing vegetables. It wasn’t clear to me whether arsenic could get into the plants. (As a precaution though, I always used raised beds.)

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Mike, you’ve nailed down the true process. It doesn’t appear to be based on a safety standard but a money criteria. Whatever money has been secured determines what will be cleaned up.

    In a perfect world, a standard should be set for safety and all properties meeting that standard should be cleaned up. Crazy talk, I know.

  3. Impressive research. I’m impressed with the lack of logic in the contamination areas listed on that detailed map. Our winds are predominantly out of the North and West, and yet there are no little triangles or circles in that area below the old fertilizer grounds…then places far-flung from the plant–like the West and Northeast on that map are loaded with testing bogeys. It begs the question–why? Selective testing, known dumping grounds from the past, or other polluters happy to let the fertilizer plants absorb all the blame here.

    As for the cleanup levels being different from site to site, my cynic’s answer is that they worked backward based on how much money they could squeeze (by political influence I imagine) out of the Superfund. Meaning, if they squeezed 1 million, they calculated how much they could clean before that money was gone. Based on that theory, the Superfund was not very kind to south Minneapolis, thus only the people who ask and only if they test high enough will get cleaned. The rest, can just choke on their cancer causing dust and die…survival of the politically fittest rules here.

  4. Kate, thanks for the update. Since clean-up process involves replacing something like a foot of topsoil in your yard, I imagine that you yard has not been cleaned up without your knowledge.

  5. Generations of my family are from 28th St. and 21st Ave. in S. Mpls. My mom died @ 65 in 2001 of lung cancer. My sister died @ 47 in 2006 of primary brain cancer. My grandmother struggled for years of an unexplained neurological disorder including seizures and the inability to hear although her ears were fine. I suffered from unexplained seizures, convulsions, comas when I was a baby and small child. My brother cannot give or receive blood because of an antibody in it the doctor says is from a manmade chemical. I have read that arsenic can cause all of the above. I would like to know how we can be tested for arsenic and prevent further health problems and deaths caused by it. Do you know of any info for the families affected?

  6. To address Leann’s question–

    This EPA project began 3 years ago and according to the documents linked in the posting, they have completed their health assessment phase.

    However, your case seems to be worthy at least an email or phone call into the person listed in the document as their Community Involvement Coordinator–
    Cheryl Allen (allen.cheryl@epa.gov) 312-353-6196 or 800-621-8431, ext. 36196

    Even if she can do nothing directly from her position, she might be able to refer you the proper federal or state agency that you can address your concerns to. Good luck and best wishes.

  7. There are sites in australia were arsenic has been dumped and it is not fenced off or treated with 10-100 or even 2,000 times the safety levels above

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