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.

Elaine Hansen, Carlson's former commissioner of administration, also served on the blue-ribbon panel. "I remember the project very well, because we had concerns about the amount of funding. We met with a number of people at the U and said, 'Do you guys have everything in order?' And they said it would be enough," Hansen recalls. "The issue of contamination was never brought up."

Apparently unaware of the MPCA's repeated warnings about cost overruns (or the U's own evidence of significant contamination in the area), Carlson green-lighted the project on February 11, 1997. Within a month, according to MPCA internal documents, Peder Larson, then-commissioner of the MPCA, was telling Hansen that cost overruns were in fact likely, owing to the presence of contaminated groundwater, contaminated soil, and the possibility that "measures might have to be taken to prevent" hazardous vapors from entering the archives. Around the same time, an MPCA hydrologist, Jim Pennino, warned in a letter to the U that the construction of the archives could exacerbate groundwater pollution in the area by providing a conduit for contaminants to work their way into a deep aquifer. When excavation began in July of 1997, it became apparent to the MPCA that the contamination problems on site were worse than imagined.

"As each week goes by, more and more environmental problems are showing up on the archives site," Lynne Grigor, an MPCA hydrologist, wrote in a memo that October; including the presence of "brown, frothy, odorous water." While Grigor emphasized that U staff and contractors were "quite willing to make construction modifications," she also noted that there was evidence of widespread contamination in the area that could pose a political problem because "some upper level people at the University told the legislature there were no environmental problems in the archives area."

As construction proceeded, it became apparent that the contamination was much more than a possibility. Polluted water, coursing through fractures in the ballfield's bedrock, was steadily flowing into the caverns, producing some strange effects. As part of their original plan, the engineers had anticipated the water flow and installed a network of drain pans on the cavern ceiling to collect it. What they did not anticipate was a peculiar white, caulk-like mold that began forming on the cavern's ceiling.

The mold itself, which according to the MPCA feeds on the coal tar in the contaminated water, is not a major problem. But when it dies and drops into the drain pans, it is consumed by microorganisms that then emit hydrogen sulfide. At high levels, hydrogen sulfide (commonly known as "rotten-egg gas") is both highly flammable and dangerously toxic. At low levels, it stinks and causes headaches, nausea, and malaise.

As construction neared completion, the smell of rotten eggs became more and more intense. Usually it was worst in the cavern spaces surrounding the archive buildings. But in July of 1999, the hydrogen sulfide odors in the archives' mechanical room got so bad that construction workers refused to enter the area. Around the same time, MPCA hydrologist Grigor paid a visit to the site and, according to an internal memo, "had a headache after a couple of minutes at the less odoriferous end of the room." A subsequent investigation by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration deemed the vapors "not hazardous." There was an acknowledgment, though, that the vapors "could make people feel ill." So OSHA required the U to install a toxic-gas monitoring system in the room, along with an emergency phone, "should an incident occur."

Despite the project's bad smell, construction of the Elmer L. Andersen Library proceeded at a breakneck pace, taking a total of only 22 months. Before opening doors to the public, though, officials at the U told the MPCA the school would install a special well that was designed to pump the contaminated water out of the bedrock before it reached the caverns.

That well was never installed. According to MPCA files, the university attorneys wanted assurances that Minnegasco would foot the bill. Then, for more than a year after the library was built, the two institutions clashed over what technology to employ, with the U pushing for a horizontal well, and Minnegasco arguing for less expensive vertical wells.

Last June the MPCA issued a ruling stating that there were "serious risks to human health" from the continued leaks of coal-tar-contaminated waters in the cavern-maintenance areas and access spaces, and chastised the U for failing to live up to its promise to install the well and other "engineering controls" before occupying the building. Last month the MPCA finally issued a ruling in support of the U's preferred technology, which the U has promised to install by summer. According to U of M lawyer Karen Hansen, the school "fully expects" Minnegasco to pay for it.

"It's been frustrating for us," says Michael Kanner, the MPCA site remediation manager. "The U and Minnegasco are pointing fingers at each other, and that game is being played out very slowly."

 

As a tenured professor and longtime curator at the University, Andrea Hinding was initially excited when plans for the Andersen Library were announced. But soon after moving into her new office in February, she changed her mind. To begin with, she quickly became concerned about the air quality in the caverns, especially in the loading dock. "Whenever I was in the area, I would start coughing, as if I was having an allergic reaction," she says.

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