The coverup of Lilydale landslide deaths can't hide rising costs

Mohamed Fofana (left) and Haysem Sani were buried under tons of shale, sand, trees, and water

Mohamed Fofana (left) and Haysem Sani were buried under tons of shale, sand, trees, and water

Being shameless can pay off.

At least that is what some Saint Paul officials appear to be betting as they quietly seek $3.7 million of state aid to deal with a problem they claimed didn't play a role in the 2013 landslide that killed two St. Louis Park school children.

The landslide was caused by huge volumes of stormwater rapidly flowed through culverts on the bluffs of St. Paul's West Side. The largest, which adjoins Cherokee Park, was “unplugged” by city officials shortly before the tragic event in Lilydale Park. The water tore apart bluffs and ravines, killing the two boys as they were hunting for fossils on a field trip.

The city has always claimed the culverts had nothing to do with this deaths. The pitch for repair money now says otherwise.  

The ask officially comes from a little-known government body called the Lower Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization, which represents Saint Paul and its southern suburban neighbors – where most of the stormwater originates. But the money would be spent entirely in the capital city, whose representatives pushed the re-engineering plan.

The concept never came up during a February publicity blitz by Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm, who highlighted plans to reopen parts of the park by summer. (It still hasn't happened.) Included were engineering studies and designs promising to solve most Lilydale's safety problems.

Scarcely a word was spoken of a parallel study by Barr Engineering, which focused on the stormwater culvert issues. The city continued to claim that the bluff's instability was caused by natural erosion in the face of changing weather patterns.

Mayor Chris Coleman stood by a city-commissioned engineering study done without even setting foot in the ravine where the children died. Nor did the study reveal that Parks staff had expressed serious concerns about earlier landslides as well as the impact of Cherokee Park culvert work.

City Pages uncovered a biting critique from DNR geologist Carrie Jennings, who was called in to help with recovery of the bodies that tragic day. Her analysis pointed to stormwater from the culvert as likely undermining ravine walls, which then collapsed on the children. But the city never consulted Jennings, eventually paying $1 million the boys' families to put the matter to rest. 

Mother Nature, however, isn't so easily silenced.

This summer, St. Paul officials admitted that “large rain events in May” caused severe erosion on Lilydale's bluffs – though weather records show below-average rainfall that month. They also conveyed concern about a new culvert that was dumping more stormwater over the bluffs.

Saint Paul Parks Department now recognized that ravines and trails were being washed out all the way down the hill, with sediment running into Pickerel Lake and the Mississippi River. They asked the Lower Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization to apply for state funds to cover repairs.   

The plan never came before the City Council. There were no public hearings on the application, which includes a declaration that Lilydale “is used by hundreds of thousand visitors annually.” It is an especially laughable claim since most of the park has been closed since 2013.

Nor does the pitch include plans to reduce the volume and speed of stormwater, as suggested by Barr Engineering. It mysteriously disappeared in discussion, with minutes showing no indication of Saint Paul  pressing West St. Paul and Mendota Heights to stop allowing so much rainwater to be funneled over unstable riverbluffs.

But all is not lost. The request promises there will be “especially active” community engagement. Lilydale's problems may yet be flushed away with happy thoughts and taxpayer dollars.