The Spreading Stain

The long, slow fight to clean up one of northeast's largest polluted sites

In 1997, not long after moving to the northeast Minneapolis neighborhood of Waite Park, Gayle Bonneville was walking along Central Avenue when she spotted a curious-looking building in an adjacent railway yard. The enormous, semicircular red brick structure, known formally as the Shoreham Yards Roundhouse, was erected in 1883 as a locomotive repair facility.

The intervening years have taken a toll on both the railroad business and the once-grand edifice, which has fallen into disrepair and suffered a partial demolition. But Bonneville thought the roundhouse still had potential. If put to another use, she decided, the structure might even revitalize the abutting stretch of Central Avenue, a poorly lit industrial wasteland that was used chiefly as a transient camp.

After a little research, Bonneville learned that the roundhouse was already the object of a contentious legal fight between the city of Minneapolis and Canadian Pacific Railway. CP, Bonneville learned, wanted to raze the structure and was considering plans to sell the surrounding 18 acres to a big box retailer.

So along with a handful of other neighborhood activists interested in a more historic-minded redevelopment, Bonneville formed a group called the Shoreham Area Advisory Committee. Over the next two years, the group pushed for an alternate plan, attended scads of meetings, and attempted to cajole the railroad into a neighborhood-friendly solution.

Then a strange thing happened. In December of 1999, on the occasion of the release of a neighborhood-backed proposal to convert the roundhouse to office space, CP abruptly withdrew the property from the market. A few months later, Bonneville says, the railway made its reason clear: The site was severely polluted and would require extensive cleanup. "I'd been working on this for a few years, and I didn't know anything about any pollution," Bonneville recalls. "And this is one of the largest polluted sites in Minneapolis."

The news may have come as a shock to Bonneville and her neighbors, but the pollution at Shoreham Yard was hardly a secret. As far back as 1989, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had identified major soil contamination in the northwest corner of the parcel, an area that had long been leased to a now-defunct wood-treatment company called Cedar Services, Inc. A subsequent investigation, headed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, revealed that an estimated 30,000 gallons of a preservative called pentachlorophenol (or PCP) had been spilled on the site after a pipe ruptured in 1961. The level of contamination was determined to be significant, but not bad enough to merit inclusion on the federal superfund list.

In subsequent years, however, it became clear that the pollution was worse than initially thought. The PCP--a known carcinogen that can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys--had seeped through the soil, into the Prairie du Chien aquifer and slowly migrated to the southwest. Although the extent of the plume is still a point of contention, state officials now believe the PCP has moved at least 10 blocks, well off the Shoreham property line and much further than anyone suspected.

In 1997, facing an imminent change in regulations governing the disposal of contaminated soils, Canadian Pacific excavated and removed approximately 12,000 tons of the PCP-contaminated soil, which was shipped to a landfill in Oklahoma. Since then, the railway has done little in the way of actual remediation. Instead, it has embarked on an extensive investigation--drilling monitoring wells, taking soil borings, and looking for evidence that might implicate other companies who might be forced to share the cleanup expense.

The pace of the proceedings has frustrated Bonneville, her fellow members of the Shoreham Area Advisory Committee and, to some extent, state regulators. In a tersely worded July 15 letter to Canadian Pacific, Robert Anderson, a project manager with the Department of Agriculture, criticized the railway's response to the Cedar Services site: "The MDA staff does not believe that the MDA and CPR share the same goals for the investigation and cleanup."

Reached by phone, Anderson declines to comment specifically on the railroad's posture. But, he says, "We've been seeking cooperation with CP. Now we're getting to the point where instead of asking we'll be telling."

In the railway's defense, CP officials point out that the geology below Shoreham Yards is extremely complex. A bedrock valley that runs below the site influences the flow of contaminants in ways that are not entirely understood. Before a cleanup can be effected, the company first needs to determine the precise extent of the plume. Toward that end, says CP environmental specialist LeeAnn Thomas, the company has taken approximately 450 soil borings and dug approximately 150 wells--at a cost in excess of $10 million.

The company contends that identifying the source of the pollution is a legitimate concern. Northeast Minneapolis has been home to a lot of polluters over the years, and once toxins reach water, they can migrate considerable distances. Thomas notes that investigators have traced some of the contaminants found in monitoring wells at Shoreham to the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in New Brighton, a federal superfund site that is located approximately six miles away. Other, smaller polluters may well be implicated in the plume state officials attribute to Cedar Services, Thomas posits.

In fact, Canadian Pacific is currently involved in a separate legal battle to determine who is to blame for the presence of some nasty and persistent pollutants called chlorinated solvents on the eastern edge of Shoreham Yard. The railway is suing two former tenants, Ashland Chemical and Murphy Oil, that stored the chemicals on the site.

While that case lumbers toward a 2007 trial date, CP continues to drill monitoring wells and take soil borings. An effort to clean up diesel spills--which CP acknowledges probably came from its railroad operations--was aborted after consultants discovered the chlorinated solvents in the vicinity. The concern? That pumping out the diesel might somehow hasten the further spread of the other pollutants.

The need for appropriate caution aside, Rick Jolley, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, acknowledges that there have been tensions between CP and the MPCA about the speed of the cleanup on the east side of Shoreham. Concerned that litigation between the railway and its former tenants might lead to further delays, Jolley says, the MPCA considered placing the site in the state superfund program. Rather than have that happen, the railroad agreed to a binding schedule under which it must release a formal action plan next winter.

In Gayle Bonneville's view, the new schedule constitutes a hopeful sign of progress. Still, she says, the bureaucracy of environmental cleanup is more complex and slow moving than she ever realized. "They have lots of lawyers who come to our weekly meetings," she says. "It looks very complex to us, and very slow to us. And we're wondering, 'Why doesn't this happen at a faster pace?' As a community person, I just keep thinking, Hurry up."

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