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.

As their crusade dragged on, the families found themselves fighting an increasingly lonely battle. At one point soon after the compost site opened, Ralph Sletten says, all but two of his 28 cul-de-sac neighbors signed a petition demanding that the site be closed. But few were willing to go farther than that. Now that the odor has grown fainter, "more people are for the site than against," claims Dawn Knabe, who lives with her husband and three children some 600 feet from the compost facility. "I like having [it] there. Each spring, I go down and get compost for my garden."

However, says Sletten, the lack of vocal opposition doesn't mean no one else is concerned. One neighbor, Ronald Brzinski, recently had his well water tested after complaining for years that he felt ill. Among the elements discovered in that well was barium, a metal often found in medical waste. While Brzinski won't discuss his medical problems, his attorney Gavin Craig--who is also one of three lawyers representing the Slettens and the Behrenses--contends that his client's symptoms are "consistent with exposure to the chemicals found at the [compost] site."

So, he claims, is the fact that a number of residents have complained of respiratory ailments over the past decade. They include Connie Judeen, the Slettens' next-door neighbor, who developed asthma after moving to the neighborhood five years ago. Her husband, Roger, says the couple complained about the site to the City Council, but to no avail.

Jana Freiband

Margaret Behrens was up late one night last year nursing her new baby when an infomercial caught her eye. "It asked if you were having problems dealing with the government," she recalls, "and I thought, 'Boy, are we ever!'" The phone number at the end of the infomercial was that of Larry Levine, a prominent local attorney. Levine referred the families to his son Mark, who eventually passed the case on to a friend, attorney Robert Hill.

"I'm not an environmental lawyer," acknowledges Hill, "but their story was so compelling, there's no way I could not help them." He enlisted the aid of Craig and another lawyer, Tim Dodd, and the three began sorting through the stacks of papers and photographs the family had amassed.

On June 18, 1997 the Slettens and Behrenses filed a nuisance-and-trespassing suit demanding unspecified damages from KSTP, the city of Maplewood, and Ramsey County. Among other claims, they alleged that the compost rows weren't turned often enough to cut down on odor or disease-causing organisms; that the stench kept them from enjoying their own properties (hence the trespassing claim); and that they had been exposed to "abnormally high concentrations of the aspergillus fungus, which has caused severe allergic reactions." As an expert witness, Hill hired Patrick Williams, a biochemist who works as scientific director of Benchmark Genetics in Northfield.

Williams says he was baffled when the lawyers first showed him the results of the 1994 test. Some of the compounds it detected, like atrazine (found in herbicides), pentachlorophenol (found in wood preservatives), and lead (found in the exterior paint of many older homes) could have made their way to the site via yard waste, he says. But there is no easy explanation for several others. "Silvex hasn't been used in this country for nearly 20 years," Williams maintains. "The only reasonable explanation is that somebody dumped this stuff."

"And what if the moon is made out of blue cheese?" rejoins McLaughlin, the Ramsey County assistant attorney. "We can only respond to evidence, not supposition. And there's no evidence of dumping." McLaughlin maintains that the Maplewood site operates "above and beyond all legal requirements," and even has special monitoring during hours of operation. "There's nothing there but leaves and grass."

But according to Beth Sletten, the county's monitoring system consists of one guy sitting in a pickup truck. "He never bothers to get out and examine the bags," she alleges. "People could put anything into those bags and he'd never know it." When City Pages visited the site, the monitor's truck was parked far from the unloading area, and its occupant never looked up or interrupted his half-hour chat with another worker. What's more, Sletten says, no one watches the site at night--and her family has photographed evidence of dumping, including a couch, tires, and empty 55-gallon drums. Last week, when Williams collected new water samples at the site, he videotaped piles of compost containing everything from children's shoes to adhesive containers, paint-can lids, and a bottle of car steering fluid.

Williams suspects that the 1994 test showed just the tip of the iceberg. He says a number of other toxic compounds might be present at the site, but didn't appear in the 1994 report because the test wasn't sophisticated enough. The state lab ran the samples through a drinking-water test, he explains, and not one for surface water. Drinking-water standards are less stringent than those for surface water, on the theory that humans can withstand greater amounts of toxins than, say, minnows. Williams says new samples have been taken by both him and the county, and will be tested according to the tougher surface-water standards.

While city and county officials continue to claim that no illegal dumping occurred at the site, Maplewood has recently added a fallback position to its strategy. Should the trial bring out evidence of dumping, says City Manager Mike McGuire, Maplewood would deny any responsibility. "We only issue a permit from a zoning standpoint," he says. "That's our only involvement. The county runs the operation."

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