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.

That's true, says Neil Carlson, an industrial hygienist at the University of Minnesota's Department of Environmental Health and Safety. But, he adds, if the conditions are right, people living near a composting facility can still be exposed to the fungus. "If the wind is traveling in the right direction and the piles are big enough, you're going to get a pretty good dose." While most people won't have any discernible reactions to aspergillus, Carlson says, for others exposure can be life-threatening.

Armed with their stacks of research, the families returned to their doctors for allergy tests. All of them reacted strongly to aspergillus. (More tests are underway to determine their level of exposure to the fungus.) But the results only resolved part of the mystery. "It helped explain the respiratory problems," says Ralph Sletten. "We still didn't know what was causing the lesions."

Jana Freiband

In 1994, 10 years after the Maplewood site opened, Ramsey County finally conducted a test for contaminants. According to an affidavit by Terry Noonan, a hydrologist in the county's water resources department, the move had nothing to do with the neighbors' complaints: It simply came in preparation for "modifications" the county wanted to make to the site. The study was "voluntarily undertaken," Noonan emphasized, and no law or policy required the county to conduct such tests. (Noonan declined to comment for this article; his boss, Hansen, would not discuss the test or other specifics relating to the lawsuit.)

Noonan's test consisted of two water samples, one of leachate that had percolated through the compost heap and one from the ditch adjacent to the site along Beam Avenue. The samples were shipped to the state Department of Public Health for analysis, and the results were sent back to Noonan. According to a report drafted by Noonan in February 1995, the leachate concentrations of aluminum, copper, lead, and zinc exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards for surface waters--the level at which the EPA considers water to be contaminated.

In addition to the heavy metals, the test found small amounts of a number of regulated chemicals, including the herbicide Agent Orange and silvex, a compound so toxic it was banned under an emergency order by the EPA in 1979. Both Agent Orange and silvex have been linked to birth defects, lesions, respiratory problems, and cancer.

Despite those results, Noonan and Hansen concluded no further action was necessary. In his affidavit, Noonan explained that the EPA regulations cited in his report were not applicable to compost leachate, and that the herbicide concentrations were too low to qualify as "hazardous." In short, explains assistant county attorney McLaughlin, "the analysis found there was absolutely nothing wrong with the water."

Pollution-control officials, however, aren't so sure. Roger Mackedanz, acting supervisor of the Incident Response Unit at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, says his unit was not aware of the 1994 test until City Pages presented it to him. "Our department would definitely like to take a look at this site," he says. Agent Orange, Mackedanz notes, is widely used in lawn herbicides. "But the silvex, I don't know where that's coming from."

Dan White, a pollution-control specialist at the MPCA, also says the test results are new to him. It's difficult to comment on them, he says, because it's not clear that the sample was collected properly. "Ramsey County basically dug a small hole below the compost site, which sits on a hill and is lined with treated lumber," says White. "And treated lumber is full of arsenic, chromium, and copper."

Still, he adds, "if there's concern of contamination, which there is in this case, they should go back and run more tests." Unless subsequent tests come up with something more conclusive, he says it's unlikely the MPCA will take action. Roberta Wirth of the yard-waste unit concurs, saying she saw the test results back in '95 and considered the contamination "borderline."

Vincent Garry, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota, also recommends further testing. Garry, who has conducted extensive research about the effects of pesticides and herbicides on humans, says the amounts of toxins at the Maplewood site are too small to poison people living nearby. But government agencies, he says, "would be remiss if they didn't investigate" what's going on.

So far, however, no such investigation has taken place. Nor, says Ralph Sletten, did the agencies involved ever inform his family of the test results. He says he didn't find out about them until five months after the study was conducted, when Noonan's report was made available to the Maplewood City Council. And even then, he says, "no one understood the damn thing."

By this time, the Slettens and Behrenses had become a familiar sight around Maplewood City Hall. They would show up at every City Council meeting, passing out copies of documents, discussing their ailments, and asking the Council to investigate--all, says Beth, to no avail. "They treated us like we were nuts," she says.

Not so, rebuts Council member Sherry Allensbach. She says the Council has been "very concerned" about potential health risks from the compost site, and has tried to respond to the families' requests. "We passed on every document the Slettens gave us to Ramsey County," she contends. Allensbach and fellow City Council member Marv Koppen refused to elaborate further on the Council's position, citing the current litigation.

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