Cyanide Pact

Sayonara, cyanide? Randy Kouri, who lives near the Upper Harbor River Terminal's salt storage site, hopes so.
Craig Lassig

Scrambling down a muddy embankment along the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis, Randy Kouri gestures toward a 14-inch-diameter plastic drain pipe jutting from the earth. "That's where all that crap was all running out, right into the river," he says. As Kouri examines the salt-dappled concrete slabs and rocks below the pipe, an indignant expression crosses his weather-beaten face. Since 1974 he has lived on the river's edge, on nearby Marshall Avenue, and has long been active in efforts to clean up the industrialized riverfront. He has been especially concerned about the enormous piles of road salt--sometimes as much as 100,000 tons of the stuff--that are stored here at Upper Harbor River Terminal. But what Kouri didn't know until recently, what very few people knew, was that runoff from the salt piles had been releasing a well-known poison into the river: cyanide.

"I've been going after the city for many years about the salt piles, but we could never get anywhere," Kouri recalls. He'd complained to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which administers the municipally owned river terminal, but says his concerns were routinely dismissed: "I'd go down to the MCDA and say, 'I really don't think these salt piles should be on the river,' that it just didn't make sense for them to be there. And the MCDA would just huff and puff and say nothing was wrong."

Then last spring Kouri spoke with Saul Simon, director of the Winona-based environmental watchdog group Mississippi River Revival. Simon had also been worried about the effects of the half-dozen or so big road-salt piles that are scattered along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. For decades salt wholesalers have used riverfront storage sites as a matter of convenience, because their product is hauled into the state via barges. Simon's group had explored the possibility of filing suit against the various companies and municipalities involved in the practice. But, he says, he was deterred by a gaping regulatory loophole: salt storage piles, it turns out, are not subject to any state permit process.

Frustrated, Simon turned to Keith Cherryholmes, an engineering specialist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "When I was talking to Keith, I was looking for a leverage point," Simon says. Cherryholmes, who had done his doctoral work on complex cyanides at the University of Iowa, then shared with Simon an obscure fact about road salt: it contains a compound called ferrocyanide, which is added in minute quantities to prevent the pure salt from clumping. Simon also learned that under certain conditions, ferrocyanide, which is not especially toxic to aquatic life, can be transformed into a so-called free-radical cyanide, which is. "I was pretty astounded to find out about that," Simon says, "and yet nobody seems to have put two and two together and realized this is not a good substance to be storing in large piles near the river."

After further discussions Cherryholmes told Simon that the MPCA would have the state's Department of Health analyze runoff from piles if the Mississippi River Revival would collect samples. With that, Simon recruited Kouri, who last May took two samples from the drainage pipe at the Upper Terminal. The results of those tests showed levels of free radical cyanide up to 80 times the MPCA's maximum standards, according to Cherryholmes. "Cyanide is about as quick-acting and lethal as any compound known to man," Cherryholmes notes. "If you have eight to ten parts per billion, that'll kill fifty percent of fathead minnows that are exposed to it." One of the runoff samples taken from the Upper Harbor drain had a cyanide concentration of 1,500 parts per billion, says Cherryholmes.

On the basis of that finding, the MPCA sent the city an official notice of violation last month. The two-page letter charged that runoff from the terminal's salt stock violated state pollution laws, and ordered the City of Minneapolis to take immediate remedial action and to develop a long-term management plan for the site.

Jim Forsyth, an administrator with the MCDA, claims that the city has dealt with the trouble swiftly. "When I first heard about this, I ordered the River Terminal to plug up the storm drain. And that was done within a day or two," he says. The city also erected a dirt berm between the salt pile and the river to contain the salty waters. "The bottom line is, we don't want to cause pollution and we are going to comply with the PCA's requirements. Right now, we've precluded any runoff." Forsyth also contends that great care is now being taken to ensure that the salt piles are kept out of the rain, either with a thin layer of cementlike coating or plastic tarps. "The salt is always covered one way or the other. Customers do it if for no other reason than they don't want lose the salt to runoff."

But Kouri scoffs at such a claim. On a visit to the site last week, he points out that much of the leftover winter salt stock, piled 20 to 25 feet high and stretching some hundred yards, had neither a plastic tarp nor the sprayed-on cement covering--despite the fact that it had rained that very morning.

As Kouri sees it, tarping is an impractical solution anyway. He argues that the owners of the salt piles--which include the giant, Minnesota-based multinational Cargill, Inc.--ought to build enclosed storage facilities for the salt. That's what the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been doing since concerns about runoff from road-salt piles first surfaced in the 1970s, according to Norm Ashfeld, metro maintenance superintendent with MNDoT. "All our salt piles are in a shed on a nonpermeable pad," Ashfeld says. "We take great pains to keep our salt as environmentally friendly as possible."

That said, MNDoT purchases its salt from bulk sellers like Cargill that don't adhere to such practices. As for Cargill, company spokesman Allen Holbert says compliance with environmental regulations is the responsibility of River Services, Inc., the company that manages the Upper Terminal for MCDA. River Services, Inc. manager Jerry Christianson is currently on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

But the storage of salt is almost beside the point, say environmentalists like Simon. After all, even the best facilities can't keep the salt out of the rivers and lakes once it's been applied to the roads. Considering the damage salt inflicts on nonaquatic plant life like roadside pine trees and grasses, critics argue that earth-friendly de-icers ought to be used. "There's better alternatives," Simon says, "stuff made from things like soy and brewery byproducts."

According to Ashfeld, MNDoT has experimented with corn-based de-icers, and has taken to applying a "salt brine" to dry roads in an effort to reduce the amount of additional salt needed once bad weather hits. But Ashfeld says cost remains an obstacle in the search for alternatives. "We pay about 24, 25 dollars a ton for salt," Ashfeld says. "Other products cost 800 to 1,200 dollars a ton and they don't melt as effectively. So, in effect, for every ton of salt, you'd have to use two tons of the other stuff, and there's no way our budget could handle that." According to Ashfeld, MNDoT currently goes through between 75,000 and 100,000 tons of road salt yearly in the eight-county metro area.

Despite the findings of illegal levels of discharge at the River Terminal, nobody has yet demonstrated a direct correlation between the cyanide and any die-off of aquatic life. But that, Simon argues, is probably due to a lack of aggressive investigation. Besides, he points out, the use of road salt has other hidden costs, in the form of corrosion of vehicles, bridges, and road surfaces--costs that ought to play into policymakers' calculus as they weigh different options. Because of the findings of illegal runoff from the salt piles, Simon adds, Mississippi River Revival is now contemplating filing suit against various municipalities and corporations under the federal Clean Water Act.

Meanwhile, Cherryholmes says the MPCA will probably look to develop a statewide regulatory process to better govern the storage of road salt. He points out that the Upper Terminal is hardly the only site where runoff has been a problem. Tests on at least three other storage facilities in the state, including the Dakota Bulk Terminal in South St. Paul, revealed excessive levels of both chloride and cyanide, according to Cherryholmes. He says he expects that notices of violation will be issued in those cases as well.

"For years, we've had complaints about the road salt, but I don't think anybody ever considered banning it. I think there's a reluctance to change these practices because salt is economical," Cherryholmes says. "And for years, nobody but the salt people knew there was cyanide in there. The more the public understands the ramifications of this, the better off we'd be," he adds, concluding, "I think most people know that cyanide is a very toxic material, and that we need to be extremely careful."

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