Chemical Imbalance

How Paul Thelander turned radios into gold, wind into spirits, and chemicals into a cocktail that might have saved the world.

Almost overnight, the toxic waste clean-up on 40th Avenue in South Minneapolis achieved a kind of legendary status at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Dick Kable, who leads the MPCA's Emergency Response Team, took the April 7 phone call. A woman's small voice on the other end worried about chemicals that had been stored, some for decades, in the basement and garage of her property. Kable scheduled an appointment for the following day to check things out at her home. He then called Roger Van Tassel at the city's inspections department and invited him to come along. "We didn't have any idea of what we were getting into," Kable says. In the three decades he'd spent cleaning up poisonous substances and containing spills around the state, nothing had prepared him for what they found.

Kable and Van Tassel located the house at 2808 40th Ave. S. without difficulty. It's a small stucco in the quiet, residential Longfellow neighborhood, a few blocks from Brackett Park and the stately homes along West River Road. Anne Thelander, who owns the house, greeted the inspectors at the front door. She ushered them across a porch piled with books and weeks' worth of newspapers, through a living room stuffed with more books--history, religion, fiction--past the upright piano adorned with photographs of her deceased husband, and waved them toward the basement door.

At the foot of the stairs the team stopped short, taking in the scene. "There were piles and piles of chemicals on the floor in different containers--5-gallon, 1-gallon, quart-sized," Kable recalls. "You couldn't walk around." Old metal shelves ringed the full basement, Van Tassel remembers, all of them laden with dozens of dust-caked and rusted containers--plastic buckets, glass jugs, metal canisters, flasks, beakers, Bunsen dishes. "Oh, my God, there were a lot of chemicals down there," he says. "The thing that got me wondering was this glass vial that was actually melted. And that means some major base elements." Other vessels were severely corroded and leaking. Some displayed labels; some were unmarked. "I have never in 30-plus years run into a private house with this quantity of materials," Kable says. "I expected chemicals, but it was chock-full." After a long moment in awe, he began to worry about his health: "I could feel a sensation, some burning around the lips. That was a warning to remove myself." After forcing the garage door open, the men discovered another cache of chemicals equal to the first.

Kable and Van Tassel quickly determined that Thelander's home was a disaster waiting to happen. (In May, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the entire property an emergency Superfund site). By their estimation, any mishandling of the chemical containers would have quickly turned the basement into a lethal gas chamber. "There were things like cyanide and arsenic," says Kathy Carlson, an MPCA information officer who happens to live down the street from the Thelander house. "A fire would have spread those chemicals all over the neighborhood."

In an industrial warehouse, she goes on, the kinds of substances stockpiled in Thelander's basement are stored in fortified barrels, labeled, and stacked in concrete troughs secured against spills and corrosion. Sprinkler systems and high-tech alarms guard against damage by fire. Regular inspections, meticulous records, and permits required by state law add another layer of safety. "Suffice it to say," Carlson concludes, "there weren't any of these controls in the Thelander's basement."

In a matter of hours, Kable brought in hazardous-material handlers in protective Tyvek suits and respirators who worked for a week to identify, sort, and pack the waste into 55-gallon drums for removal. By week's end they had tabulated a 100-page list of chemicals removed from the property, and filled 67 barrels with an array of dangerous materials: 38 gallons of sulfuric acid; 66 gallons of other acids--hydrofluoric, hydrochloric, phosphoric, and nitric; more than eight gallons of liquid and 50 pounds of solid cyanides; and at least three gallons of mercury compounds. Arsenic, nitrates, phosphates, sulfates, acetates, chlorides, trichlorides--all were trucked off to Hennepin County disposal sites.

Even after the basement had been cleared out, a toxic residue remained. The film of dust and poison didn't bother Thelander, but a city assessor who entered the basement some three weeks later on an unrelated visit developed an irritating rash. That, along with a red-flag alert by the two original inspectors, brought the EPA to town. When the agency's crew ran tests in the basement, they discovered that the ceiling, walls, fixtures, shelves, concrete floor, and even the air was contaminated with cyanide. Workers evacuated Thelander and proceeded to scrape and rinse the basement, sealing it with coats of industrial-strength paint. During the course of the emergency operation, they also came across another stash of chemicals the MPCA had missed, including seven barrels of noxious waste buried in the back yard, four of which contained cyanide sludge. The final price tag for the clean-up--some $100,000 by the time the property was ruled habitable on June 3--was split between federal, state, and county governments.

All the while, despite her serene demeanor, Anne Thelander was terrified of losing her home. "I was really worried that they would tear down the house," she says. "They took away my house key. They thought it was really serious. I didn't know it was that bad." She explains that her husband, Paul, who died after a heart attack in January 1997, had been hauling chemicals home for the 35 years they'd lived in

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