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.

The university is also on record arguing that nobody ought to worry about the air quality in the archives. Last fall president Yudof wrote Hinding a letter, offering assurance that the library and its safety systems "meet or exceed all relevant requirements. The building is a safe place in which to work." Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the university, echoes the assessment: "Obviously, our first priority is the safety and health of human beings and our university community. But our information is that there is no health risk at this time relating to the groundwater issues, and that appropriate abatement has occurred in and around the building."

That abatement is sure to go on for years, possibly decades. Both the U and the MPCA are betting that the contaminated groundwater can be pumped, contained, and treated before it reaches the caverns. Last month's resolution with Minnegasco over what kind of well to install is just the tip of the iceberg, however. The big question lingers: Who will foot the bill for cleaning up the remains of gas holder number four and the 20,000 cubic yards of polluted soil under the ballfield?

According to a report prepared by a Minnegasco consultant, the cost could range anywhere from $2 million to $8 million. Rotenberg declines to discuss the U's estimates, citing the continuing negotiations between the two parties. "I don't want to negotiate with them in the newspaper," he says. "But we believe that significant steps need to be taken, and there is some disagreement about what those steps should be." One report, published in the campus newspaper, quoted an unnamed university official who estimated that the total cleanup costs run as high as $16 million. Calvin Alexander says he's heard other estimates as high as $20 million.

Meanwhile, Minnegasco is urging the MPCA to assign the gas-holder-number-four site to a state-run Superfund program. Since 1996 the U and Minnegasco have participated in the MPCA's Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup Program. As a practical matter, a Superfund classification--with its more formal proceedings and more rigid legal hurdles--could drag out the cleanup. From Minnegasco's perspective, that could result in a simple time-money benefit. In addition, it could lead to more "responsible parties" being brought into the equation when it comes time to pay. Those parties could include other industries that operated in the vicinity, as well as the university itself, which Minnegasco may attempt to hold partially accountable for the coal-tar emissions during the U's demolition of gas holder number four in the early Sixties. "Our position is that we need to be working with the university to determine what type of sharing of responsibility there needs to be," says Patty Pederson, a Minnegasco spokeswoman.

"The U has a very different view of that, but this is not the time to preview litigation positions," responds university general counsel Rotenberg. "We're just trying to resolve this inexpensively and privately."

So far, very little at Andersen Library has proved inexpensive. The total cost of the project has crept up to $46.5 million, $11.5 million more than the 1995 estimate, despite significant scale-backs, including the reduction from three caverns to two. In July 1998 the university's board of regents allocated an additional $1.7 million to the project for pollution controls. Then there's some $287,000 on consulting fees to the MPCA and approximately $100,000 spent on outside counsel to handle negotiations with Minnegasco. University budget officer Mike Berthelsen says there is no single explanation for the upward spike. "Usually, when you have a project this large, it's a combination of things," he says. "Especially when you're trying something new."

For some critics working at the university, the cash is a crucial issue. "You're an employee here and you try and do a good job, and then you see all this tax money getting pissed away," one says. "And the message goes out: Shut up about this until more money is approved." For others, like Andrea Hinding, the possibility of the damage to the materials stored in the archives is most worrisome. "I think there's gonna be a substantial cultural loss," she complains. "We're in a flood plain, and we need to rely on all these systems working all the time, every time. And the experience in this building so far just isn't very promising."


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