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.

Midway through a tour of the new Elmer L. Andersen Library, Donald Kelsey pauses for a moment in the airy atrium that serves as the centerpiece of the $46.5 million building. He rubs his hand along a length of smooth, white oak railing. "It's one of the things I treat myself to every day," Kelsey explains, savoring the texture of the bare wood. As the facilities-planning officer for the University of Minnesota's Library Department, Kelsey was a major player in the building of Andersen Library, and he remains one of its most appreciative boosters. When budget cutters were looking to save money a few years back, he fought to keep the wood accents. "It just wouldn't have been the same without the oak," he proclaims.

Sitting atop a bluff on the west side of the Mississippi River just north of the Washington Avenue Bridge, the library is four stories high, with a curved red-brick façade and plenty of windows. The latter provide a splendid view of the U's most visually arresting edifice--the metallic, geometrically challenged Weisman Art Museum. By comparison, Andersen Library appears unremarkable. But then again, it is largely invisible: the vast majority of the complex is buried deep underground.

After slipping his key card into an access slot, Kelsey hurries into an elevator, descends some 80 feet, and strides into the heart of the library. Now home to more than 1.5 million volumes, the underground archives consist of two connected concrete warehouses that sit inside two enormous caverns, tunneled out of soft sandstone. "You could put two football fields end to end here and still have room left over," Kelsey boasts.

As he wends his way through the endless rows of shelves, Kelsey stops to point out various notable artifacts. The manuscripts and personal library of the poet John Berryman. The world's largest collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. The Kautz family YMCA archives. Twelve thousand rare and antique books donated by the library's namesake, former governor and University regent Elmer Andersen. In all, eight major collections are stored in the warehouses, which also serve as the headquarters for a renowned interlibrary loaning system known as MINITEX.

For more than two decades, Kelsey says, University officials had hoped to build a central archive. Until the library was completed, the collections were scattered at sites across the campus, some of which were ill-suited to accommodate rare materials. In the worst cases, he says, the collections were menaced by everything from paper-eating cockroaches to water leaks. But those hazardous days, Kelsey exclaims, are over: "This building was very carefully designed in every respect, and we always erred on the side of caution. The temperature and humidity are steady as a rock."

Kelsey's upbeat tone echoes the public hosannas that various university officials have bestowed upon the library since it opened in February 2000. University president Mark Yudof calls the library "an extraordinary new space." Library director Tom Shaughnessy refers to it as "a state-of-the-art storage center." And, in a press release issued on the eve of its first open house, the school grandly dubbed the edifice its library system's "crown jewel."

But these rosy assessments don't square with those of various faculty and staff at the U, or many others associated with the library. In the view of the critics, problems with the project can be traced to one crucial misstep: the decision to build the archives in an area severely contaminated with industrial pollutants. To date, they point out, the legacy of that decision has already included millions of dollars in cost overruns, equipment malfunctions, and complaints about air quality. With the looming prospect of a decades-long cleanup, lawsuits are a virtual certainty. But worst of all, the critics contend, is the possibility that the U of M has put both the health of archive users and the safety of some of its most prized collections at risk--despite the fact that such hazards were "entirely foreseeable."

The red flags began popping up before the first shovelful of dirt was thrown in June of 1997. As far back as 1996, months before final funding for the project was authorized by then-Gov. Arne Carlson, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency predicted cost overruns, citing major contamination in the site's groundwater. But, according to members of a blue-ribbon commission Carlson appointed to study the project, neither the U of M nor the MPCA bothered to pass that information on to the state.

To this day, officials from the university and various agencies involved with the project complain that a widespread emphasis on institutional damage control makes it difficult to speak openly. Commenting seems especially risky given the probable litigation between the university and Minnegasco (the MPCA and university blame the utility company for pollution at the site). "In private, everybody knows this was a stupid idea. One bad decision after another," says one such critic. "But you can't say that, because it's so damn hot politically. And you know everything you say and do is going to be very closely scrutinized, because the legal wrangling on this site has gotten ugly. Hugely ugly. Awesomely ugly."

 

To understand the morass of legal, political, and scientific issues swirling around the Elmer L. Andersen Library, you must first consider the history of the neighborhood in which the edifice is located. The new building sits on a small parcel of land just north of the Washington Avenue Bridge. These days, the area is a dominated by university structures such as the Carlson School of Business, the law school, and the studio arts building. For most of the last century, though, the area was home to a wide variety of industries. Many of them left toxic reminders of their former presence.

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."

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.

Hinding began comparing notes with other library staffers and found that a handful of other workers who had spent time in the archives were also complaining of periodic headaches and wooziness. And she was not calmed by reassurances from the university's Department of Environmental Health and Safety that concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and other toxins were "much less than OSHA or voluntary health limits." (Late last month the Minnesota Department of Health, which is now working with the university to develop an indoor-air-quality plan for the facility, said in a letter that it was "concerned about the use of industrial standards and guidelines for non-industrial workers.") "I just don't think it's safe," Hinding opines. "I'm not a scientist or an engineer. I'm a historian. But as a historian, I know about the Love Canal and the early testing of atomic bombs, and so I take a cautious approach."

Hinding also began to worry about the books and other artifacts stored in the library. Like most of her fellow curators, Hinding was told the caverns had been designed to guarantee a constant temperature and humidity--rule number one for paper conservation. But she noticed dramatic fluctuations in the conditions. "Shortly after we moved in, I thought the stacks were damp," Hinding recalls. "When I asked people about it, they would say, in a patronizing way, 'There, there, Andrea, you can't tell the difference between cold and damp.'" Unconvinced, she soon began taking humidity and temperature levels in the Audio-Video Room, where some of the library's most sensitive artifacts are stored.

Her unease was amplified when she got in touch with Calvin Alexander in the hopes of borrowing better temperature- and humidity-measuring equipment. Alexander, a professor in the Geology Department with an expertise in caves and environmental cleanup, had already developed a skeptical interest in the underground library. For months Alexander and his colleagues on the Institute of Technology Library Committee had been requesting temperature and humidity readings from the university's Facilities Management Department. According to Alexander and Institute of Technology library chairman Sanford Lipsky, that data was never provided.

Throughout February Alexander charted his own measurements, which varied radically from day to day. At its hottest, according to Alexander's data, the AV room was 95 degrees; at its coolest, 50 degrees. Relative humidity, meanwhile, ranged from 31 to 21 percent--a far cry from the paper-friendly conditions the library's boosters long promised. (In the past month, Alexander says, the temperature and humidity measurements in the archives seem to have balanced out, suggesting that either the building's operators have mastered the intricacies of its controls or that the changing season has made it easier to maintain stable conditions.)

Alexander's findings dismayed Hinding. His take on another issue--the possibility of a flood in the caverns--worried her even more. Alexander had been concerned about flood risk in the caverns since first getting wind of the project five years ago. According to the university's engineering reports, the elevated roadway at the entrances to the library's caverns is designed to ensure that the archives will remain dry even in the event of a 500-year flood. Anderson says the chief water-damage risk, however, comes from the possibility of a storm-sewer backup, not an overland flood. The cavern's drainage system is designed to handle such events, via state-of-the-art pumps, assorted redundant shutoff valves, and backup generators. But Alexander takes little solace in the assurances, noting that, over time, even seemingly perfect systems can malfunction. "If you study disasters, they always occur as a result of a sequence of seemingly improbable events. It's not one thing that goes wrong. It's three or four, all at the same time," he says. "The question is, Was this designed by an optimist or a realist?"

Alexander says he has some misgivings about going public with his concerns over the archives; especially since university president Mark Yudof and Gov. Jesse Ventura are locked in a public-relations war over funding. "It bothers me when I see people doing things that damage the university, and I'm not sure that's something I'm not doing right now," he says. "The underground library exists. It is going to be used. It is not possible for the university to abandon it at this point. The political consequences of that would be enormous--way more than I'm willing to expend.

"Some of my colleagues have come up to me and said, 'Why are you doing this? Is this a wise investment of your time? What good does that do the U?' I want people who manage this facility, and the lawyers, to know what they're up against. Then, maybe we won't have a flood. Maybe books won't be destroyed."

 

Officially, the U regards the Andersen Library as a success. Eric Kruse, vice president for university services, says the erratic humidity and temperature numbers that Hinding and Alexander gathered were an aberration--the result of malfunctions in the ventilation system. "We've had some difficulties in the past," he acknowledges. "But it's not a whole lot different than other new buildings that come online. You go through what's called a shakedown period, and getting all the systems to work together in the intended way takes some time."

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."

ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN KELLY

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