What Lies Beneath

What's in the smelly, oily water coming out of the ground at the new Heritage Park housing development?

Last Saturday afternoon, seven children scurried around a tiny playground in the heart of Heritage Park, the new housing development going up just north of downtown Minneapolis. They took turns on the slide, landing softly on the wood chips below. Some played at the edge of a small pond nearby, running their hands through the pebbles and dirt of the shoreline. Occasionally, the kids sought refuge from the blazing sun in the shade of an adjacent gazebo.

That such an idyllic scene could be found in what historically has been one of the most blighted areas of the city would normally seem like a small triumph. But the kids, all of them children of color, were oblivious to one bleak fact: Just 24 hours before, the playground, circled with yellow "caution" tape, and pond had undergone a quickie environmental cleanup.

Last Thursday night, a group of city leaders and community activists held a preliminary meeting to form an environmental justice group for the city's north side. Their conversation quickly turned to a mysterious groundwater ooze that had surfaced in recent weeks in Heritage Park. Residents were complaining of an unbearable stench, migraine headaches, and sick children. After the meeting, many in the group went to the site to see for themselves. What they found was foul-smelling water seeping through the wood-chip bed of the playground.

"The water on the playground was not a normal color," says state legislator Keith Ellison, who represents the area and journeyed to Heritage Park that night with the group. "It's black, with a petroleum-looking sheen. And the fact that this is on a playground, for heaven's sake, is just unacceptable."

Others in the group were shocked at the degree of the problem. Some complained of instant nausea and headaches, and some people with asthma reported that they had to leave the site. "The black stuff was coming up through the wood chips, and there were areas where some sort of corrosive material was coming out of the sidewalk," recalls Susan Breedlove, who is spearheading the organization of the environmental group. "Whatever this is, it's serious."

Word of the seepage spread quickly, and by Friday morning crews were working in haste to pump water out of the playground and dump fresh wood chips at the site. Three representatives from McCormack-Baron, the master developer overseeing the entire Heritage Park project, claimed that the cleanup had been scheduled for weeks. "When it rains we've been getting standing water, and we've been looking at the drainage problem for about a month," insisted Terry Randolph. "But the water is clean, it's just discolored from the wood chips."

But by Friday afternoon, Ellison had called in workers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to take water samples. "I'm trying to be deliberately non-inflammatory, because we don't know what it is," Ellison says. "But I feel strongly that the city needs outside eyes looking at it."

 

The problem with Heritage Park is cause for concern politically as much as environmentally. The area on the northwest corner of Olson Memorial Highway and I-94 is what used to be called the Hollman site, in reference to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by public housing tenants, the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, and the NAACP against the city, state, and federal governments for creating a segregated public housing district. The suit was settled in 1995 by a decree under which the city agreed to demolish the rundown projects, and to spend $117 million creating new units in more affluent parts of the city and the suburbs by the fall of 2001.

Since then the project has been riddled with controversy, claims of back-room dealings, and blown deadlines. In May 1999 the city gave the overall development rights for Heritage Park to McCormack-Baron, a St. Louis-based company that specializes in redeveloping former public housing projects. Soon there was a plan in place, according to which the city would build roads, sewers, and other infrastructure for Heritage Park, and McCormack-Baron would coordinate the building of 900 units of new housing. By the time city leaders and developers broke ground almost two years ago, the estimated cost of Heritage Park had climbed to $200 million; more recent predictions add another $30 million.

Meanwhile, critics have long worried that the new housing complex, home to industrial sites for more than 100 years, has profound contamination problems. Current city documents show $5.8 million earmarked for "contamination remediation" and "land preparation" at the site, of which only $1 million is left.

Despite these concerns, and years filled with various sorts of delays, townhomes and apartment buildings started going up rapidly last fall and winter. More than 220 units are now occupied. Most of the tenants in the vicinity of the playground in question are minorities.

Several residents say the problem has been overwhelming for weeks, and many are blaming the chronic gassy stench for physical symptoms that have included headaches, dizziness, itching, and nausea. Some also suspect that the smelly water is finding its way into their tap water, which they say "tastes funny," and have taken to drinking bottled water. Many parents say they're keeping their kids away from the playground altogether.

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