Something Rotten

Jana Freiband

Beth Sletten slouches into a brown, overstuffed couch in her parents' parlor. Her plus-size, long-sleeved corduroy shirt spills over black, loose-fitting pants; peeking out over the tops of her black half-boots are thick white socks. No matter how she sits or how high her pant legs hike up, not one inch of flesh is revealed. Only her face, neck, and hands see the light of this April day.

"My body isn't under my control anymore," she says. Her lively brown eyes survey the room, taking in her mother's needlepointed pillows, her father's prized recliner, the mournful head of a deer. "I used to be a dancer," she says. "I toured around the country and performed in off-Broadway shows."

But the days of high kicks and top hats are over for Sletten. Now, at 28, a walk around the block can leave her gasping for air. And even if her stamina were to return, she'd never put a skimpy dance costume on again. "I have lesions everywhere," she says. "On my chest, thighs, calves, arms, scalp..." Her voice trails off. She rolls up her right pant leg and points to a cluster of angry red bumps on her calf. "They'll appear without warning," she explains, "and then they'll blister and pop, leaving a scar."

Sletten is not alone. Her mother, her father, and her sister Margaret Behrens, along with Margaret's husband James and their four children, all have the same kind of lesions, as well as a variety of respiratory problems. The cause of their illness, says Sletten, is an unlikely suspect--the pile of rotting yard waste just 500 yards from her parents' front door.

For the past 14 years, Maplewood residents have been bringing their lawn trimmings to the local composting site. For about as long, says Sletten, her family has complained about the site's overpowering stench and about the illnesses that began after it opened. But city and county officials have denied those claims, arguing that it's impossible to get sick from grass clippings and leaves.

After a decade of attending meetings, collecting documents, and sending letters to a slew of government officials, the Slettens and Behrenses are now suing Ramsey County, the city of Maplewood, and KSTP (which owns the land under the compost site) in Ramsey County District Court, contending they have been exposed to hazardous materials. They cite a test conducted by the county that found a number of toxic substances at the site, among them a compound called "2,4-D," more commonly known as Agent Orange. A biochemist hired by the families claims the facility--and others like it throughout the metro area--could be "a huge toxic incubator."

The Maplewood compost site sits on the northern two acres of a 43-acre lot owned by KSTP, whose AM talk station transmits from the opposite end of the land. An aluminum gate marks the entrance; there are "No Dumping" signs along the dirt road, but no fence. A dozen or so residents scurry back and forth between their vehicles and a huge pile of leaves, emptying bag after bag. A bulldozer loads another pile into a semi truck, each scoop releasing a plume of steam from the warm heap. At the far end of the lot, a man shovels dirt from a small pile into the back of his station wagon. This is the finished product--dark brown compost with a rich, warm feel when you hold it in your hands.

According to county officials, composting is the perfect way to dispose of the more than 50,000 tons of leaves, grass, and small twigs Ramsey County residents rake up from their lawns each year. "These facilities are in great demand," says Steve McLaughlin, the assistant county attorney who is handling the Sletten/Behrens case. The Maplewood site has been open since 1984 and, McLaughlin says, has operated without problems ever since: "At no time have there ever been any violations or allegations reported about this site."

But Beth Sletten says her family had trouble with the facility from the start. For one, she insists, it stunk to high heaven. "There were times when I'd go outside and vomit because the smell was so bad." Even her father, who'd grown up on a farm, couldn't stomach the odor. "My uncle used to say that the farm smelled like money," says Ralph Sletten. "But this just reeked."

The Slettens, who've lived in the house on North Clarence Street since 1956, used to host extended family gatherings, and on hot summer days the neighborhood would ring with the sounds of children playing in their backyard pool. But it wasn't long before the pool became little more than a repository for unwitting bugs and falling leaves. "You couldn't stand to be outdoors for long," says Beth. "Your eyes would water and burn, and your chest would get tight."  

For a while, the family kept quiet. Ralph, who served on the city planning commission at the time, was convinced the site would soon close anyway. "It was a test site, so the city only issued a two-year permit," he notes. As the 1986 expiration date loomed closer, the Slettens and the Behrenses--Margaret and James had purchased a lot nearby and were having a new home built--began to breathe a bit easier. As far as they were concerned, says Beth, the experiment was a failure, and the city couldn't possibly renew the permit.

It didn't. But it didn't shut down the site either. "It ran from 1986 to 1990 without a permit," charges Ralph. "And without supervision." That's true, says Roberta Wirth, supervisor of the yard-waste division at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But, she adds, the city did nothing wrong: The state didn't require cities to issue compost-site permits until 1990.

That was the year the state Legislature passed a law prohibiting yard waste from being burned or mixed with other garbage. As the number of government-operated compost sites in the metro area quadrupled--there are now 26--the MPCA drafted regulations to ensure they were maintained properly. Compost piles, the agency declared, would have to be turned periodically to reduce odor and cut down on the growth of bacteria and fungi. Compost couldn't contain more than 3 percent "inert materials" such as plastic and glass, and runoff from the sites had to be contained by earthen dams. An additional regulation to keep down odor was abandoned, Wirth says, because it was "too difficult" to enforce.

Nowhere in the MPCA rules was there any mention of monitoring or testing the compost piles, or the soil and water around them, for contaminants. The only report counties must file with the state is an annual calculation showing how much yard waste enters each site and how much leaves as compost.

The reason the regulations are so lax, says Wirth, is that the composting process is "organic" and poses virtually no risk to the environment. And though no regular inspections of the sites are required, she adds, that doesn't mean they are not supervised: "I have personally visited every site in the metro area, and have been to the Maplewood site at least a dozen times."

So have Ramsey County staffers, says Zach Hansen, manager of the county's Environmental Health Section. He says his employees check on each of the county's eight sites regularly "as a matter of good business practices." What's more, he says, the county responded to neighbors' odor complaints by making the Maplewood location a "transfer-only" site for grass clippings in 1996. (Leaves are still composted on-site.)

But that's not much of a concession, counters Ralph Sletten. He says the county regularly fails to pick up clippings within three days as promised, thus allowing composting, and the stench, to begin.

Nasty as the odor might be--"It can get pretty awful," concedes the MPCA's Wirth--it soon yielded to a new concern for the Slettens and Behrenses. By the early 1990s, they all were experiencing respiratory problems or lesions, or a combination of both. Margaret Behrens's 10-year-old, Zach, was being home-schooled because doctors had diagnosed him with asthma so severe he couldn't go to school. The other family members bounced from doctor to doctor, getting diagnoses of colds, bronchitis, and nonspecific "allergies." But none of the physicians could explain what might cause them all to have similar problems. A dermatologist prescribed a variety of ointments to treat the lesions, but nothing worked.

Frustrated, Ralph Sletten and his daughters started conducting their own research. Wirth had told them that the only thing on the compost site that might possibly pose a health hazard was a naturally occurring mold called aspergillus fumigatus. They set out to learn more.

According to the medical literature, the Slettens discovered, aspergillus can cause allergic reactions and in some instances infection. Complications can run from hay fever-like symptoms to skin rashes and an unusual type of asthma. And while infections from the mold are rare, research indicates that people with weakened immune or respiratory systems should avoid exposure.

This information set off some warning bells for her family, Beth says. But it wasn't until her sister stumbled upon the case of a New York compost worker that they became truly alarmed.

Harry Dobin had worked at the Islip compost facility on Long Island for five years when he suddenly fell ill. His doctors were baffled by the 25-year-old's condition, and they spent nearly a year treating him for asthma, arthritis, Lyme disease, kidney disorder, and bronchitis. In January 1992, when Dobin could barely breathe, the doctors decided to perform an open-lung biopsy. They discovered that his lungs were filled with the aspergillus fungus.  

The doctors gave Dobin antibiotics, but whenever they thought they'd gotten rid of the fungus, it showed up in another part of his body. According to a report by staff pathologists Dr. Anthony Italiano and Dr. Kevin Bassett at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, aspergillus traveled to Dobin's brain, then to his spine, and then to his legs. Initially, the doctors considered amputating both legs, but they quickly discovered that that would be futile: The fungus had invaded Dobin's heart and infected a valve. Dobin died five days later and his parents filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death suit against the city of Islip.

In the wake of Dobin's death, the New York State Department of Health conducted additional research into aspergillus infection. According to its findings, the disease is rare and is generally limited to people with other serious illnesses that have weakened their immune or respiratory systems.

The MPCA's Wirth says that's consistent with what she knows of the fungus. Aspergillus infection, she explains, seems to strike mainly compost workers: "The closer you are to the site, the greater the risk of exposure."

That's true, says Neil Carlson, an industrial hygienist at the University of Minnesota's Department of Environmental Health and Safety. But, he adds, if the conditions are right, people living near a composting facility can still be exposed to the fungus. "If the wind is traveling in the right direction and the piles are big enough, you're going to get a pretty good dose." While most people won't have any discernible reactions to aspergillus, Carlson says, for others exposure can be life-threatening.

Armed with their stacks of research, the families returned to their doctors for allergy tests. All of them reacted strongly to aspergillus. (More tests are underway to determine their level of exposure to the fungus.) But the results only resolved part of the mystery. "It helped explain the respiratory problems," says Ralph Sletten. "We still didn't know what was causing the lesions."

In 1994, 10 years after the Maplewood site opened, Ramsey County finally conducted a test for contaminants. According to an affidavit by Terry Noonan, a hydrologist in the county's water resources department, the move had nothing to do with the neighbors' complaints: It simply came in preparation for "modifications" the county wanted to make to the site. The study was "voluntarily undertaken," Noonan emphasized, and no law or policy required the county to conduct such tests. (Noonan declined to comment for this article; his boss, Hansen, would not discuss the test or other specifics relating to the lawsuit.)

Noonan's test consisted of two water samples, one of leachate that had percolated through the compost heap and one from the ditch adjacent to the site along Beam Avenue. The samples were shipped to the state Department of Public Health for analysis, and the results were sent back to Noonan. According to a report drafted by Noonan in February 1995, the leachate concentrations of aluminum, copper, lead, and zinc exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards for surface waters--the level at which the EPA considers water to be contaminated.

In addition to the heavy metals, the test found small amounts of a number of regulated chemicals, including the herbicide Agent Orange and silvex, a compound so toxic it was banned under an emergency order by the EPA in 1979. Both Agent Orange and silvex have been linked to birth defects, lesions, respiratory problems, and cancer.

Despite those results, Noonan and Hansen concluded no further action was necessary. In his affidavit, Noonan explained that the EPA regulations cited in his report were not applicable to compost leachate, and that the herbicide concentrations were too low to qualify as "hazardous." In short, explains assistant county attorney McLaughlin, "the analysis found there was absolutely nothing wrong with the water."

Pollution-control officials, however, aren't so sure. Roger Mackedanz, acting supervisor of the Incident Response Unit at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, says his unit was not aware of the 1994 test until City Pages presented it to him. "Our department would definitely like to take a look at this site," he says. Agent Orange, Mackedanz notes, is widely used in lawn herbicides. "But the silvex, I don't know where that's coming from."

Dan White, a pollution-control specialist at the MPCA, also says the test results are new to him. It's difficult to comment on them, he says, because it's not clear that the sample was collected properly. "Ramsey County basically dug a small hole below the compost site, which sits on a hill and is lined with treated lumber," says White. "And treated lumber is full of arsenic, chromium, and copper."  

Still, he adds, "if there's concern of contamination, which there is in this case, they should go back and run more tests." Unless subsequent tests come up with something more conclusive, he says it's unlikely the MPCA will take action. Roberta Wirth of the yard-waste unit concurs, saying she saw the test results back in '95 and considered the contamination "borderline."

Vincent Garry, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota, also recommends further testing. Garry, who has conducted extensive research about the effects of pesticides and herbicides on humans, says the amounts of toxins at the Maplewood site are too small to poison people living nearby. But government agencies, he says, "would be remiss if they didn't investigate" what's going on.

So far, however, no such investigation has taken place. Nor, says Ralph Sletten, did the agencies involved ever inform his family of the test results. He says he didn't find out about them until five months after the study was conducted, when Noonan's report was made available to the Maplewood City Council. And even then, he says, "no one understood the damn thing."

By this time, the Slettens and Behrenses had become a familiar sight around Maplewood City Hall. They would show up at every City Council meeting, passing out copies of documents, discussing their ailments, and asking the Council to investigate--all, says Beth, to no avail. "They treated us like we were nuts," she says.

Not so, rebuts Council member Sherry Allensbach. She says the Council has been "very concerned" about potential health risks from the compost site, and has tried to respond to the families' requests. "We passed on every document the Slettens gave us to Ramsey County," she contends. Allensbach and fellow City Council member Marv Koppen refused to elaborate further on the Council's position, citing the current litigation.

As their crusade dragged on, the families found themselves fighting an increasingly lonely battle. At one point soon after the compost site opened, Ralph Sletten says, all but two of his 28 cul-de-sac neighbors signed a petition demanding that the site be closed. But few were willing to go farther than that. Now that the odor has grown fainter, "more people are for the site than against," claims Dawn Knabe, who lives with her husband and three children some 600 feet from the compost facility. "I like having [it] there. Each spring, I go down and get compost for my garden."

However, says Sletten, the lack of vocal opposition doesn't mean no one else is concerned. One neighbor, Ronald Brzinski, recently had his well water tested after complaining for years that he felt ill. Among the elements discovered in that well was barium, a metal often found in medical waste. While Brzinski won't discuss his medical problems, his attorney Gavin Craig--who is also one of three lawyers representing the Slettens and the Behrenses--contends that his client's symptoms are "consistent with exposure to the chemicals found at the [compost] site."

So, he claims, is the fact that a number of residents have complained of respiratory ailments over the past decade. They include Connie Judeen, the Slettens' next-door neighbor, who developed asthma after moving to the neighborhood five years ago. Her husband, Roger, says the couple complained about the site to the City Council, but to no avail.

Margaret Behrens was up late one night last year nursing her new baby when an infomercial caught her eye. "It asked if you were having problems dealing with the government," she recalls, "and I thought, 'Boy, are we ever!'" The phone number at the end of the infomercial was that of Larry Levine, a prominent local attorney. Levine referred the families to his son Mark, who eventually passed the case on to a friend, attorney Robert Hill.

"I'm not an environmental lawyer," acknowledges Hill, "but their story was so compelling, there's no way I could not help them." He enlisted the aid of Craig and another lawyer, Tim Dodd, and the three began sorting through the stacks of papers and photographs the family had amassed.

On June 18, 1997 the Slettens and Behrenses filed a nuisance-and-trespassing suit demanding unspecified damages from KSTP, the city of Maplewood, and Ramsey County. Among other claims, they alleged that the compost rows weren't turned often enough to cut down on odor or disease-causing organisms; that the stench kept them from enjoying their own properties (hence the trespassing claim); and that they had been exposed to "abnormally high concentrations of the aspergillus fungus, which has caused severe allergic reactions." As an expert witness, Hill hired Patrick Williams, a biochemist who works as scientific director of Benchmark Genetics in Northfield.  

Williams says he was baffled when the lawyers first showed him the results of the 1994 test. Some of the compounds it detected, like atrazine (found in herbicides), pentachlorophenol (found in wood preservatives), and lead (found in the exterior paint of many older homes) could have made their way to the site via yard waste, he says. But there is no easy explanation for several others. "Silvex hasn't been used in this country for nearly 20 years," Williams maintains. "The only reasonable explanation is that somebody dumped this stuff."

"And what if the moon is made out of blue cheese?" rejoins McLaughlin, the Ramsey County assistant attorney. "We can only respond to evidence, not supposition. And there's no evidence of dumping." McLaughlin maintains that the Maplewood site operates "above and beyond all legal requirements," and even has special monitoring during hours of operation. "There's nothing there but leaves and grass."

But according to Beth Sletten, the county's monitoring system consists of one guy sitting in a pickup truck. "He never bothers to get out and examine the bags," she alleges. "People could put anything into those bags and he'd never know it." When City Pages visited the site, the monitor's truck was parked far from the unloading area, and its occupant never looked up or interrupted his half-hour chat with another worker. What's more, Sletten says, no one watches the site at night--and her family has photographed evidence of dumping, including a couch, tires, and empty 55-gallon drums. Last week, when Williams collected new water samples at the site, he videotaped piles of compost containing everything from children's shoes to adhesive containers, paint-can lids, and a bottle of car steering fluid.

Williams suspects that the 1994 test showed just the tip of the iceberg. He says a number of other toxic compounds might be present at the site, but didn't appear in the 1994 report because the test wasn't sophisticated enough. The state lab ran the samples through a drinking-water test, he explains, and not one for surface water. Drinking-water standards are less stringent than those for surface water, on the theory that humans can withstand greater amounts of toxins than, say, minnows. Williams says new samples have been taken by both him and the county, and will be tested according to the tougher surface-water standards.

While city and county officials continue to claim that no illegal dumping occurred at the site, Maplewood has recently added a fallback position to its strategy. Should the trial bring out evidence of dumping, says City Manager Mike McGuire, Maplewood would deny any responsibility. "We only issue a permit from a zoning standpoint," he says. "That's our only involvement. The county runs the operation."

Even if future tests bring more detail about just what chemicals are at the Maplewood compost site, it's possible the Slettens and Behrenses will never resolve the mystery that has dogged them for the past decade. "Every time we get a new piece of information and we think we have a handle on this, they throw something else at us," Beth Sletten says. "It's hard to put into words, but Pat [Williams] knows more about us than we do ourselves."

Last week, Williams presented the families with a brand-new dilemma: He'd gotten the results of DNA tests commissioned to document their legal claim of "chemical injury." The news, he told them, was both good and bad: There was nothing wrong with Ralph Sletten and Margaret Behrens's DNA. But Beth and her mother's genes showed anomalies--missing or extra "X" chromosomes, and a phenomenon called "fragile DNA" whose health implications range from possible birth defects in a woman's offspring to increased risk of cancer and immune-suppression diseases.

Both women's test results, Williams contends, are consistent with chemical exposure. "Many of the chemicals found on that site cause DNA damage," he says. And there's other evidence, he maintains, that the families have been exposed to hazardous substances. Doctors at United Hospital recently diagnosed Beth Sletten and Margaret Behrens with Restricted Airway Disease, an asthma-like condition. In Beth's case, the diagnosis identified "chemical exposure" as the likely culprit.

But proving such a direct connection, counters the UM's Garry, is nearly impossible. No matter what the doctors may say, he explains, it is difficult to determine whether airway disease has been chemically or biologically induced, let alone which chemical is to blame. As for chromosome testing, he says, the technique is still in its infancy: Scientists have identified DNA "fingerprints" for only a few chemicals, none of which appear at the site.

All of this ambivalence, however, only serves to compound Beth Sletten's fears. "I cried when they told me" about the DNA results, she says. "I know this stuff is new, but it's scary. No one can say what it's going to develop into."  

For now, officials insist there's no reason for concern. The MPCA's Wirth says she will reserve judgment on the families' case until more medical tests have been conducted. But, she adds, neither the Maplewood site nor its counterparts around the state constitute a health hazard to the public. "They are perfectly safe, and people should continue to use them," says Wirth. No other compost site, she says, has attracted the kind of complaints Maplewood has, and there are no plans to require testing of the facilities. "The state is committed to composting," she concludes.

So, according to assistant county attorney McLaughlin, is Ramsey County. "We have to be environmentally proactive," he says. "This is a good thing, this cycle-of-life stuff."

How long that upbeat attitude will last is another matter. "[Composting] technology is really new," says Andy Streifel, a researcher at the UM's Department of Environmental Health. "And since the state has only begun exploring this for the last five or six years, the questions are still evolving." Streifel adds that workers at the university's own compost site have had gastrointestinal problems caused by "some poopy bug" and that all compost sites "have the potential" to make people sick. "We just don't know enough yet," he says. "As the industry matures, these kinds of issues will be pushed to the forefront."

But that maturity, Beth Sletten says, may come too late for her family. Their next court date is May 12, and it could take months more of research until a jury hears their complaint. And no court, she says, can provide what the family would really like. "My father sums it up best: 'I just wish I could have the last decade back.'"

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