EPA: 56% Higher Arsenic Levels are OK for South Minneapolis Residents

The EPA has decided how clean is clean enough when it comes to arsenic levels in South Minneapolis. The verdict: 25ppm (parts per million) in residential soil: 56% higher than the naturally occurring 16ppm level – a level the EPA has previously cleaned residential soil to in other areas of the country.

Another way of putting this: up to 25 milligrams of arsenic found in a kilogram of soil is considered safe for South Minneapolis residents.

For background, check here, here, and here.

This is a vast improvement over what the EPA has done to date (cleaned up yards to 95ppm), but falls short of what the EPA has done in other communities around the United States.

Here is a reminder of where we are to date. The proposed clean-up standard would move just to the left of El Paso, TX where the EPA decided 24ppm was acceptible.

Arsenic Clean-Up Parts per Million (PPM)

Southside Pride reports the EPA’s position:

EPA’s arsenic cleanup criticized

Concluding that a “background” arsenic level of 16 kg/mg was normal for the area and citing other sources for the presence of arsenic in the soil, such as ashes from coal-fired furnaces, use of fertilizers and pesticides and presence of the substance in nature, EPA said that removal of a threshold 25 mg/kg arsenic contamination on 488 properties would meet appropriate requirements for the protection of human health and the environment.

The naturally occurring arsenic level in South Minneapolis is 16ppm. The EPA has cleaned properties in other parts of the country to that level, explaining that “Arsenic contamination would be cleaned up to naturally-occurring levels, with a calculated cleanup standard of 16 ppm.” (PDF link) Yet they’ve decided that Minneapolis can be 56% more polluted than other areas of the country?

The EPA’s Tim Prendiville explained why we shouldn’t get worked up about the difference:

“You’ve got to look a lot deeper and do some critical thinking,” said EPA project manager Tim Prendiville. “It’s not going to decrease the risk factor to clean those additional properties,” Prendiville said.

Which doesn’t explain why the EPA has decide that there was enough risk to clean properties elsewhere but not here.


This is an easy problem to solve with money. How much? $5 million is the projected difference between what it would cost to clean properties to 25ppm vs 16ppm. Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff, who represents the area, is going to push for the EPA’s own higher standard at the next full city council meeting on June 20th.

Minneapolis Arsenic Meeting with EPA

I had a chance to attend the EPA’s presentation on the state of the arsenic clean-up in South Minneapolis tonight at the YWCA. Quite a few questions were answered.

How did the choose the testing boundary?

They used computer modeling to determine likely air dispersion patterns and later adjusted that to test a full-radius around the test site rather than just likely wind patter directions.

What did the contamination pattern tell them?

Arsenic Dispersion Boundary Map

An air dispersion pattern should leave a pattern of high concentration levels near the site, tapering off to lower levels as one moves away from the site. However, the actual patter was described by Timothy Prendiville from the EPA as a “buckshot” pattern. Prendiville explained that this suggests arsenic may have been introduced onto some high testing properties from sources other than the CMC plant. For example, one of the highest results tested at 2800ppm on a property near the perimeter of the testing boundary.

What is the clean-up plan?

Properties testing at 95ppm or higher have been cleaned up or will be by the end of 2008. Additional properties will be cleaned up when funding becomes available (2009).

How many additional properties?

197 properties tested at 95ppm or higher.
411 properties tested at 25ppm or higher
541 properties tested at 16ppm or higher

16ppm is considered the “background” level for this area, or what could be considered the naturally occurring level. That doesn’t guarantee that all properties hitting that level will be cleaned up. We were told tonight that the final recommendation for clean-up standards will fall between 16-25ppm.

As a reminder, here is a chart I put together based on arsenic concentrations used in other clean-ups around the country:

Arsenic Clean-Up Parts per Million (PPM)

How much does this cost to clean up?

$15,000-$20,000 per property. So the difference between cleaning the neighborhoods from 25ppm to 16ppm is approx $2.6 million.

How to be safe

Here is a breakdown of the biggest risk factors for poisoning yourself:

2/3 Ingestion (don’t eat the dirt – and make sure kids don’t either)
1/4 Garden Vegetables (don’t grow plants in contaminated soil)
1/25 Through Skin (don’t walk around barefoot or crawl on contaminated soil)
1/2000 Dust inhalation (don’t breath?)

The point here is that all of these are prevented by reclaiming a property.

Age of Home

Properties with homes younger than 50 years do not seem to have arsenic problems. They have theories on why this is, such as turnover of the soil during construction, but no hard conclusions. Perhaps it’s because there simply are few homes that young in the surrounding test area?

Missing data

There are approximately 100 properties in the test areas that weren’t tested either due to refusal by owners to cooperate, angry dogs in the yard, etc. So there may be additional properties coming into the results at a later date.

Buying or selling a home in the test area?

If your home has been tested, you should have received a letter from the EPA with your results. As I understand it, this need to be included in your truth in housing statement to sellers. If you threw it away, the EPA can hook you up with a copy.

What can you do?

After this round of open houses (check The Deets’ calendar for additional dates) there will be another round of presentations where the EPA will explain which arsenic level (from the 16-25ppm level) they’ve chosen to use as a clean-up standard. Public statements will be taken at that time.

City Council Member Gary Schiff was there tonight. He’s represents a large part of the effected area and would be a good guy to talk to about additional proactive steps.

The impression I got from attendees is that this is moving very very slow. The arsenic problem at the plant has been a known problem for 13 years and it’s only is the past few years that any residential property pollution has finally been addressed. Going forward, there are still properties will levels higher than 95ppm that need to be cleaned (36, I believe) along with 344 additional properties that need to be recovered to background levels. The funding for those 344 properties won’t be available until 2009, and it will take years to clean them all. As Gary Schiff’s press release earlier today explained, it could take a decade to finally wrap up this clean-up effort.


One last note. It was mentioned that arsenic isn’t the only contaminant that’s found in the soil of South Minneapolis yards. Lead is very common. Especially in the yards of older homes since they’ve likely been painted many times with lead based paints.

South Mineapolis Arsenic Clean-up Update

As Kate pointed out in the comments, there is an open house at the YWCA at Lake & Hiawatha tonight to update the community on the state of the clean-up funding and efforts.

Minneapolis Council Member Gary Schiff emailed out an update as well:

EPA to announce major expansion of arsenic cleanup

For information regarding soil sampling or for a copy of a property’s results contact Tim Prendiville.

The south Minneapolis arsenic cleanup that began three years ago is about to get much larger, Environmental Protection Agency representatives will tell residents at a public meeting on Tuesday, October 30th at the YWCA, 2121 East Lake Street at 7:00 p.m. Cleanup managers will discuss the results of a recently completed health risk assessment, and take input on future cleanup which could eventually extend to another 541 residential properties. Total cleanup costs have exceeded $3 million to date.

Designation of the site to the Superfund National Priorities List last month resulted in eligibility for the cleanup of properties with soil contamination below an arsenic concentration of 95 parts per million. Approximately 130 properties with concentrations greater than 95ppm have already been cleaned up, with 36 more slated for 2008. “As a result of Superfund status, more properties may now be eligible for cleanup, depending on the final concentration level chosen.” Council Member Gary Schiff said. “Our hope is that we won’t have to carry our concern for our children to our grandchildren. However, unless the EPA can cleanup more than 70 properties per year, the process could take a decade to complete.”

The EPA will also hold general open houses to give residents an opportunity to talk to EPA representatives about the project. The open houses are on Tuesday, November 13 from 4:00 to 6:00p.m.at East Lake Library located at 2707 East Lake St., Wednesday, November 14 from 2:00 to 4:00p.m.and 6:00 to 8:00p.m.at Powderhorn Park located at 3400 15th Ave. S. and Thursday, November 15 from 2:00 to 4:00p.m.and 6:00 to 8:00p.m.at the Franklin Avenue Safety Center located at 1201 E. Franklin Ave.

My reading of this tells me that the most contaminated properties today have more than 95ppm concentrations of arsenic. By the end of 2008 all properties known to have 95ppm or higher will be cleaned up. However, this doesn’t account for unknown properties outside the current testing boundaries that could test at that level.

The good news is that it looks like we’ll be receiving additional funding to clean up more properties below the 95ppm level. How many? That depends on what level of arsenic in the soil is deemed safe by the EPA for Minneapolis residents. Here is where they’ve set the bar in the past:

Arsenic Clean-Up Parts per Million (PPM)

The question to ask tonight is, “What is the arsenic concentration of the 541st property that could eventually be cleaned up?” Then check to see where it would fall on the above chart.

Tonight is the first of 6 open houses, as Council Member Schiff mentions in his press release. I’ve added all the dates to the Deets Calendar.

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.