St. Regis Superfund site: EPA plan still unpopular
CASS LAKE — Citizens are pushing for more from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding cleanup of the St. Regis Superfund site.
A public hearing Wednesday night at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School showed overwhelming support for a more aggressive cleanup plan than the EPA had recommended at a June meeting.
The St. Regis Paper Company was a wood treatment plant that operated from 1958-1984 and contaminated the plant grounds and adjacent areas.
The site was listed on the National Priorities List in 1984, making it eligible for cleanup under the EPA’s Superfund program. The site was initially cleaned up by its former owner, Champion International (International Paper is the current property owner). A human health and ecological risk assessment was conducted that led to interim cleanup measures in 2006. The assessment concluded in 2008 that unacceptable risks remained. A feasibility study was approved in June of this year.
The EPA’s recommended plan (Alternative 4A) would in affected residential areas excavate up to two feet of soil contaminated with more than 63 parts per trillion of dioxin and 4.1 parts per million of benzo(a)pyrene equivalent, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and replace with clean soil. In areas where soil is contaminated with more than 10 ppt of dioxin (but less than 63 ppt), the plan would provide clean soil cover. In commercial areas, the plan would cover at 10 ppt of dioxin. In the ecological risk area, the plan would excavate soil at more than 31 ppm of pentachlorophenol and 18 ppm of high molecular weight polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
However, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the city of Cass Lake and many residents prefer an alternative plan, 6A, which would excavate all areas over 10 ppt dioxin and excavate the ecological risk area at 2 parts per billion of PCP.
In both plans, contaminated soil would be stored in an off-site location. Institutional controls would be implemented to monitor and protect the soil cover and prevent exposure to contaminated soil and groundwater. Heavy machinery areas owned by Cass Forest products and all unpaved commercial and residential streets in the site area would be paved.
The EPA’s recommended plan would cost an estimated $45.8 million, while Alternative 6A is the most expensive plan at $201 million. The remedial actions would be paid for by International Paper and BNSF Railway Company, the two primary responsible parties.
Other plans considered ranged from $10.5 million to $103 million. Only 4A and 6A meet the EPA’s criteria of protectiveness, state and tribal regulations and other criteria, said Tim Drexler, EPA remedial project manager.
Prior to the public comments Wednesday, Cass Lake City Councilor Wayne Bohn urged people to be sure to clearly state their preference for a cleanup plan when making their comments. Cass Lake Mayor Wayne LaDuke and Leech Lake Chairman Archie LaRose spoke out in favor of 6A.
“We cannot support 4A,” said Jeff Lewis, manager of Superfund sites for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “We strongly encourage the EPA to work with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the city and state agencies to come up with a solution that can be supported.”
During the public hearing, none of the 20 people who spoke were in favor of 4A. Almost everyone recommended 6A, although some did so only because there was no better option.
Bemidji attorney Mark Rogers, who was formerly involved in civil litigation regarding the site, noted that the originating company on the site was Wheeler, which merged with the St. Regis Paper Company in 1968.
Wheeler, Rogers said, had already contaminated a site in St. Louis Park, Minn., before it set up in Cass Lake, and ended up contaminating another site in South Dakota.
“They knew what they were doing when they came out here,” he said. “They created three Superfund sites. My empathy for them, I don’t have any. In my opinion, Cass Lake deserves the very best cleanup option.”
Rogers recommended 6A, but said perhaps even more could be done.
Patty Smith said she supported 6A but would like to see a provision that it would not preclude additional work, that residents would not hear, “You had your chance.”
“If 6A doesn’t pass, you will be seeing more from me,” Smith said.
“Leech Lake is our homeland,” said Frank Bibeau of Ball Club, attorney with the Leech Lake Band. “Other people on Superfund sites can move away. We can’t. Someone needs to fix where we live.”
“I can’t see how federal agents can walk away from this without giving us what we’re asking for,” said Leech Lake Environmental Director Levi Brown in support of alternative 6A.
“It should be cleaned up very soon – as soon as possible,” said Michael Smith Jr. “I don’t see why anyone would dump so many chemicals on our sacred mother earth. We need to learn from this mistake so it doesn’t happen again.”
Gail Leverson of the Cass County Economic Development Commission said she is working with a small wind turbine company from Pequot Lakes that is looking to relocate.
“I would like us to look at some options for cleanup that would accommodate their needs,” she said, noting that the company would provide local jobs. “I’m happy that Cass Lake is one of their choices. We have a lot of the amenities they need.”
The meeting was held to provide additional opportunity for public input from the June meeting, and the public comment period was extended 30 days to Aug. 22. During Wednesday’s public hearing, several people requested that the comment period be extended further. Drexler said the request would be taken into consideration at the EPA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago.
“It’s nice to see the turnout,” Drexler said after the meeting, adding that he saw some people he had not seen since much earlier in the process.
He said that as the time for a decision draws nearer, the situation has become more critical and people have understandably become more vocal and more emotional.
In addition to the verbal comments made at the meeting, people can submit official comments online or via fax or email. To leave comments or view information and documents, visit the St. Regis Superfund website at http://www.epa.gov/region5/sites/stregis.