Sunken Treasures

The University of Minnesota calls its new underground library a triumph of design and function. Never mind the mold that feasts on pollution, a multimillion-dollar legal dispute, and those pesky health complaints.

About a block and a half northeast of the library are two university softball diamonds, part of the few patches of green space left in the area. Until the early Sixties, the ballfields were the site of an enormous, cylindrical brick building known as gas holder number four. Erected in 1893, gas holder number four was part of a network of similar structures where the Minneapolis Gas Company, the utility now known as Minnegasco, stored manufactured gas.

Unlike the relatively clean-burning natural gas used today, manufactured gas was hardly a green energy. Its production, achieved through a process known as coal gasification, created a witches' brew of toxic byproducts, from carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and cyanide to the current bane of the Andersen Library archives: a sticky and noxious-smelling mix of volatile organic compounds broadly referred to as "coal tar."

By the late Fifties, Minnegasco had discontinued the use of manufactured gas; in 1959 the company sold the land occupied by gas holder number four to the university. A few years later, the U hired a contractor to demolish the tank and fill the gaping hole. For decades, the site was ignored. Then, in 1992, Minnegasco tested soil borings for pollutants and handed the results over to the MPCA. Although the tests revealed contamination in the deeper soil and groundwater, the MPCA did not press the utility to clean up the mess. In part, this was because the property was being used only as a ballfield. According to MPCA documents, the agency was also reluctant to expose the community to another inconvenience. The utility had been involved in a cleanup of the nearby Minneapolis Gas Works since the mid-Eighties, and area residents were complaining about being sickened by the resulting vapors. Meanwhile, the university's Library Department was busily pressing for an archive building and, in 1992, received a $2.9 million appropriation from the state Legislature to come up with a design.

Library planner Don Kelsey first began thinking about an underground archive in 1990 after hearing a presentation by Charles Nelson. Nelson, a former member of the civil-engineering faculty, had made a name for himself in the rather specialized field of mined spaces and had served as a design principal for the Civil Engineering Building, an underground structure that was built on campus in the mid-Eighties. "[He] was talking about mining for a parking garage, and started talking about the average conditions in a cavern: 57 degrees Fahrenheit, 70 percent [relative] humidity," Kelsey recalls. "My ears perked up, because that's ideal for the long-term storage of paper."

Because the U didn't have a plot of campus land large enough to accommodate the archives, the use of mined space was particularly appealing. So in 1995 the U approached the Minneapolis architectural firm Stageberg Beyer Sachs, Inc., which drew up plans for what would ultimately by known as the Elmer L. Andersen Library. At the time, the total project cost was pegged at $35 million--a figure that would swell over the years. In April of 1996, the Legislature approved the sale of $38.5 million in bonds to finance the project. All it would take to seal the deal was a signature from Governor Carlson.

In a July 15, 1996 letter to the university's Department of Environmental Health and Safety, the MPCA sounded the first of several official warnings about "possible environmental, human health and technical problems that could result if the Archives [are] located in an area that is contaminated." While the agency's communications with the U were marked by a cautious and sometimes deferential tone, internal MPCA e-mails make it clear that agency staffers saw the writing on the wall: The cost of the archive project was likely to rise "significantly" because of contaminated groundwater.

In an internal memo written five months later, Frank Wallner, then a project manager for the MPCA, noted that in the event of cost overruns, "people are going to ask why the Agency was not more pro-active." Externally the MPCA, often mired in contentious proceedings, was trying to remain friendly with the U. According to another Wallner memo, university attorney Jim Price, who had called the MPCA in mid-December, was "under the impression we were trying to halt the project." "Obviously they have been getting misleading information," Wallner wrote, adding that the MPCA merely wanted to get some issues on the table "before the consequences for misunderstanding are elevated." Finally, on December 31, the MPCA sent an official letter to the U's Department of Environmental Health and Safety, this time warning that "groundwater contamination may be more prevalent than indicated by previous data" and that "vapors could contaminate indoor air."

From the university's perspective, the warnings couldn't have come at a worse time. After the archive project sailed through the Legislature, it stalled on the governor's desk. In the spring of 1996, Carlson appointed a three-member blue-ribbon commission to examine the proposal, along with a separate plan for a library at St. Cloud State University. According to Wayne Simoneau, Carlson's former commissioner of finance and a member of the blue-ribbon panel, Carlson was seeking assurances, both technical and budgetary. "The U people felt there wasn't going to be any problem. They were very comfortable with the plans, and they assured us it would come in on cost," recalls Simoneau. "The issue of environmental concerns never came up."

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