Something Rotten

For more than a decade, Ramsey County officials blew off Ralph Sletten's complaints about the local compost site. Then a test found Agent Orange in the water.

Beth Sletten slouches into a brown, overstuffed couch in her parents' parlor. Her plus-size, long-sleeved corduroy shirt spills over black, loose-fitting pants; peeking out over the tops of her black half-boots are thick white socks. No matter how she sits or how high her pant legs hike up, not one inch of flesh is revealed. Only her face, neck, and hands see the light of this April day.

"My body isn't under my control anymore," she says. Her lively brown eyes survey the room, taking in her mother's needlepointed pillows, her father's prized recliner, the mournful head of a deer. "I used to be a dancer," she says. "I toured around the country and performed in off-Broadway shows."

But the days of high kicks and top hats are over for Sletten. Now, at 28, a walk around the block can leave her gasping for air. And even if her stamina were to return, she'd never put a skimpy dance costume on again. "I have lesions everywhere," she says. "On my chest, thighs, calves, arms, scalp..." Her voice trails off. She rolls up her right pant leg and points to a cluster of angry red bumps on her calf. "They'll appear without warning," she explains, "and then they'll blister and pop, leaving a scar."

Sletten is not alone. Her mother, her father, and her sister Margaret Behrens, along with Margaret's husband James and their four children, all have the same kind of lesions, as well as a variety of respiratory problems. The cause of their illness, says Sletten, is an unlikely suspect--the pile of rotting yard waste just 500 yards from her parents' front door.

For the past 14 years, Maplewood residents have been bringing their lawn trimmings to the local composting site. For about as long, says Sletten, her family has complained about the site's overpowering stench and about the illnesses that began after it opened. But city and county officials have denied those claims, arguing that it's impossible to get sick from grass clippings and leaves.

After a decade of attending meetings, collecting documents, and sending letters to a slew of government officials, the Slettens and Behrenses are now suing Ramsey County, the city of Maplewood, and KSTP (which owns the land under the compost site) in Ramsey County District Court, contending they have been exposed to hazardous materials. They cite a test conducted by the county that found a number of toxic substances at the site, among them a compound called "2,4-D," more commonly known as Agent Orange. A biochemist hired by the families claims the facility--and others like it throughout the metro area--could be "a huge toxic incubator."

The Maplewood compost site sits on the northern two acres of a 43-acre lot owned by KSTP, whose AM talk station transmits from the opposite end of the land. An aluminum gate marks the entrance; there are "No Dumping" signs along the dirt road, but no fence. A dozen or so residents scurry back and forth between their vehicles and a huge pile of leaves, emptying bag after bag. A bulldozer loads another pile into a semi truck, each scoop releasing a plume of steam from the warm heap. At the far end of the lot, a man shovels dirt from a small pile into the back of his station wagon. This is the finished product--dark brown compost with a rich, warm feel when you hold it in your hands.

According to county officials, composting is the perfect way to dispose of the more than 50,000 tons of leaves, grass, and small twigs Ramsey County residents rake up from their lawns each year. "These facilities are in great demand," says Steve McLaughlin, the assistant county attorney who is handling the Sletten/Behrens case. The Maplewood site has been open since 1984 and, McLaughlin says, has operated without problems ever since: "At no time have there ever been any violations or allegations reported about this site."

But Beth Sletten says her family had trouble with the facility from the start. For one, she insists, it stunk to high heaven. "There were times when I'd go outside and vomit because the smell was so bad." Even her father, who'd grown up on a farm, couldn't stomach the odor. "My uncle used to say that the farm smelled like money," says Ralph Sletten. "But this just reeked."

The Slettens, who've lived in the house on North Clarence Street since 1956, used to host extended family gatherings, and on hot summer days the neighborhood would ring with the sounds of children playing in their backyard pool. But it wasn't long before the pool became little more than a repository for unwitting bugs and falling leaves. "You couldn't stand to be outdoors for long," says Beth. "Your eyes would water and burn, and your chest would get tight."

For a while, the family kept quiet. Ralph, who served on the city planning commission at the time, was convinced the site would soon close anyway. "It was a test site, so the city only issued a two-year permit," he notes. As the 1986 expiration date loomed closer, the Slettens and the Behrenses--Margaret and James had purchased a lot nearby and were having a new home built--began to breathe a bit easier. As far as they were concerned, says Beth, the experiment was a failure, and the city couldn't possibly renew the permit.

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