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.

It didn't. But it didn't shut down the site either. "It ran from 1986 to 1990 without a permit," charges Ralph. "And without supervision." That's true, says Roberta Wirth, supervisor of the yard-waste division at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But, she adds, the city did nothing wrong: The state didn't require cities to issue compost-site permits until 1990.

That was the year the state Legislature passed a law prohibiting yard waste from being burned or mixed with other garbage. As the number of government-operated compost sites in the metro area quadrupled--there are now 26--the MPCA drafted regulations to ensure they were maintained properly. Compost piles, the agency declared, would have to be turned periodically to reduce odor and cut down on the growth of bacteria and fungi. Compost couldn't contain more than 3 percent "inert materials" such as plastic and glass, and runoff from the sites had to be contained by earthen dams. An additional regulation to keep down odor was abandoned, Wirth says, because it was "too difficult" to enforce.

Nowhere in the MPCA rules was there any mention of monitoring or testing the compost piles, or the soil and water around them, for contaminants. The only report counties must file with the state is an annual calculation showing how much yard waste enters each site and how much leaves as compost.

The reason the regulations are so lax, says Wirth, is that the composting process is "organic" and poses virtually no risk to the environment. And though no regular inspections of the sites are required, she adds, that doesn't mean they are not supervised: "I have personally visited every site in the metro area, and have been to the Maplewood site at least a dozen times."

So have Ramsey County staffers, says Zach Hansen, manager of the county's Environmental Health Section. He says his employees check on each of the county's eight sites regularly "as a matter of good business practices." What's more, he says, the county responded to neighbors' odor complaints by making the Maplewood location a "transfer-only" site for grass clippings in 1996. (Leaves are still composted on-site.)

But that's not much of a concession, counters Ralph Sletten. He says the county regularly fails to pick up clippings within three days as promised, thus allowing composting, and the stench, to begin.

Nasty as the odor might be--"It can get pretty awful," concedes the MPCA's Wirth--it soon yielded to a new concern for the Slettens and Behrenses. By the early 1990s, they all were experiencing respiratory problems or lesions, or a combination of both. Margaret Behrens's 10-year-old, Zach, was being home-schooled because doctors had diagnosed him with asthma so severe he couldn't go to school. The other family members bounced from doctor to doctor, getting diagnoses of colds, bronchitis, and nonspecific "allergies." But none of the physicians could explain what might cause them all to have similar problems. A dermatologist prescribed a variety of ointments to treat the lesions, but nothing worked.

Frustrated, Ralph Sletten and his daughters started conducting their own research. Wirth had told them that the only thing on the compost site that might possibly pose a health hazard was a naturally occurring mold called aspergillus fumigatus. They set out to learn more.

According to the medical literature, the Slettens discovered, aspergillus can cause allergic reactions and in some instances infection. Complications can run from hay fever-like symptoms to skin rashes and an unusual type of asthma. And while infections from the mold are rare, research indicates that people with weakened immune or respiratory systems should avoid exposure.

This information set off some warning bells for her family, Beth says. But it wasn't until her sister stumbled upon the case of a New York compost worker that they became truly alarmed.

Harry Dobin had worked at the Islip compost facility on Long Island for five years when he suddenly fell ill. His doctors were baffled by the 25-year-old's condition, and they spent nearly a year treating him for asthma, arthritis, Lyme disease, kidney disorder, and bronchitis. In January 1992, when Dobin could barely breathe, the doctors decided to perform an open-lung biopsy. They discovered that his lungs were filled with the aspergillus fungus.

The doctors gave Dobin antibiotics, but whenever they thought they'd gotten rid of the fungus, it showed up in another part of his body. According to a report by staff pathologists Dr. Anthony Italiano and Dr. Kevin Bassett at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, aspergillus traveled to Dobin's brain, then to his spine, and then to his legs. Initially, the doctors considered amputating both legs, but they quickly discovered that that would be futile: The fungus had invaded Dobin's heart and infected a valve. Dobin died five days later and his parents filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death suit against the city of Islip.

In the wake of Dobin's death, the New York State Department of Health conducted additional research into aspergillus infection. According to its findings, the disease is rare and is generally limited to people with other serious illnesses that have weakened their immune or respiratory systems.

The MPCA's Wirth says that's consistent with what she knows of the fungus. Aspergillus infection, she explains, seems to strike mainly compost workers: "The closer you are to the site, the greater the risk of exposure."

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