Playing With Fireproofing

The Lakeland city beach is beautiful, secluded, and contaminated with asbestos

It is a little after noon and Lakeland Mayor E. Craig Morris is locking up city hall for the day. After punching the alarm code into a keypad, he steps into the bright mid-January sunshine and strides over to his car, which is parked next to a rickety water spigot. Above the spigot is a weather-beaten sign that reads "Drinking Water." "It's a crusty-looking piece of crap," Morris allows. "But we've left it there as a sort of historic reminder." In the mid-Eighties, the mayor explains, many Lakeland residents made weekly trips to the spigot after testing revealed that some of the town's private wells were contaminated with high levels of benzene--an organic compound found in gasoline that can cause cancer, chromosomal aberrations, and neurological afflictions.

The pollution was traced to a now defunct truck stop on the outskirts of Lakeland, just off Interstate 94, about 15 miles east of downtown St. Paul. For years long-haul truckers had been dumping excess fuel in the rear of the truck stop to avoid being ticketed for carrying overweight loads across the Wisconsin border; over time the expelled gas worked its way into the water table, spreading out over the aquifer like a vast, subterranean plume. It became so bad that one homeowner complained that after drinking a cup of morning coffee, he would burp and taste gasoline, Morris recalls. When other Lakeland residents took showers, the benzene levels in the air exceeded limits set by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Heath Administration.

In 1988, Lakeland voters passed a referendum authorizing the construction of a municipal water system. But the environmental crisis remains a painful memory for this normally sleepy town of 2000. "For three years my life was a blur. We had property values diminished by half. People couldn't sell their houses. People were getting divorced over this thing. It was a real nightmare," Morris remembers. "That's why, when I found out about this asbestos thing, it was that old déjà vu. The first thing that ran through my mind is that we have a problem again, and we don't know the extent of it. It made me very, very uncomfortable."

At that, the mayor shifts his car into gear and heads to Lakeland City Beach, which has been roped off with red tape and marked with a danger sign: "CANCER AND LUNG DISEASE HAZARD/AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY/RESPIRATORS AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING REQUIRED IN THIS AREA."

In September a rare and hazardous form of industrial-grade asbestos was found scattered about the surface of the beach and adjacent parking lot. Asbestos is an incombustible, chemical-resistant, fibrous mineral long used for fireproofing and electrical insulation before the federal government phased out its use beginning in the early Seventies. If improperly handled, it can be fatal. As a result, the discovery has led to both civil and criminal investigations. The ongoing cleanup effort may cost as much as $100,000. And while there have been no charges levied, that has not stopped Lakeland residents, including the mayor, from drawing their own conclusions. "Whoever did this, I believe, did it knowing full well that they were distributing harmful material," Morris says. "To me, it was an act of terrorism."

 

Lakeland City Beach is located on the western shore of the St. Croix River, on a secluded dead end that the locals refer to as Beach Road. There are eight homes on this stretch that, like much of the St. Croix Valley, is characterized by considerable natural beauty. Because of the big cottonwoods and ash trees in the low-lying areas, and the stately oaks and elms on the bluff above (not to mention the river view), more and more affluent young people are flocking to the area to buy and renovate property.

On September 24, 2001 Cynthia Thorpe, one of Beach Road's newer residents, called Lakeland City Hall to report that she and her husband Colin had detected an unusual-looking material mixed into the gravel of the beach parking lot. According to the city's phone log, Thorpe said she suspected it might be asbestos. She went on to surmise that since the home she and her husband bought in 1996 had been full of asbestos, maybe this material was "left over" from the original construction. In a followup fax to the city clerk, Thorpe wrote that "the stuff appeared to be buried in several places" and that it was "almost as if the flood [the previous spring] removed layers of gravel and soil and exposed it."

The couple then took a sample of the material to an environmental laboratory in St. Paul, which confirmed that it was asbestos. Within two days the Lakeland City Council contacted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), ordered danger signs and barricades installed at the beach, and hired the local environmental-consulting firm AllPhase to devise a cleanup plan. Mayor Morris then sent out an informational letter to his constituents. "We have no reason to believe that the material was intentionally deposited or dumped at the site," he concluded.

The mayor was simply repeating a hypothesis developed by Rennie Smith, AllPhase's owner. Smith initially hypothesized that the material had washed up on the beach during flooding the previous spring. That was good news to Morris. Since the high waters had damaged the beach and its parking lot, the beach had remained closed all summer. And that meant, theoretically at least, that few people would have been exposed to the asbestos.

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