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St. Regis Superfund site: Citizens want action now

CASS LAKE -- An public meeting concerning the St. Regis Superfund site brought out passions in people frustrated by the timeline.

As a result, Environmental Protection Agency Remedial Project Manager Tim Drexler decided to schedule an additional public meeting prior to a public hearing in January.

The St. Regis Paper Company was a wood treatment plant that operated from 1958-1984 and contaminated the site and adjacent areas.

Drexler presented an update on cleanup plans for the site Tuesday night to about 45 people who crowded into a classroom at Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake.

"We're grateful you are so into this," Drexler said. "We are getting to the point where we are going to be making these decisions very soon."

But many residents felt it's not happening soon enough.

"I think you better hurry up," said Cass Lake resident Sandra Nichols. "It's been a Superfund site since 1984. You guys are destroying this earth. How many more years are you guys going to plan?"

"You guys should have done it right the first time," said Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird of the Leech Lake Tribal Council. "I think all of these people want actions. You want comments? I thought you already did that."

"I've lived in Cass Lake all my life," said Don Headbird. "I grew up in the contaminated area. I lived with my mother and four siblings. We used to play in the creosote."

Headbird's mother and oldest brother died of cancer. His next-oldest brother has serious health problems.

"The human part of this is expendable to these companies," said Franklin LaRose, who has lived in Cass Lake his whole life.

"The human element is lost," agreed Lori Gellings, a former Cass Lake resident who now lives on the White Earth Reservation.

"We appreciate the frustration of the community," said Jane Neumann, Superfund Division tribal coordinator with the EPA, adding that the agency wants to do a thorough job.

Drexler and Neumann stressed that the EPA cannot address past exposures to contaminants and their effects, because it has the ability by law only to deal with current conditions.

"We consider this site a very high priority," Drexler said.

Daniel Pena, an environmental research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health who declared the site a public health hazard in 2001, said determining the causes of cancer is very difficult.

"There are multiple causes of cancer," Pena said. "To establish a cancer cluster is so, so difficult."

State Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) attended the meeting in his role as environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band and lead technical person for the tribe eon the Superfund site.

"It's very important going forward that the community participate in the cleanup," Persell said.

"It's good to see the attendance today," Tribal Chief Archie LaRose said. "We heard very wonderful questions, very concerning questions. It's been here for 25 years now and it's going to be going on a few more years. ... We'll continue to be humble and patient, but we want to see some action."

"I think it's because we're getting closer," Drexler said about the frustrations aired during Tuesday's meeting. "They just need an opportunity to publicly talk about the things they're concerned with on the side. I think it helps them. Hopefully it brings them closer to what we're doing at the same time so that they can help us look forward."

Drexler said that even though much of the meeting's focus was on the past, he hopes people will work toward the future.

One remedial action Drexel presented as a possibility for affected residential areas would be to excavate soil and revegetate. In another possibility, the properties would be purchased from the residents; the houses would be demolished and the properties covered with clean soil.

In the former operations area, contaminated areas could be capped or covered with soil and revegetated, or soil could be excavated and replaced with clean soil. Contaminated soil could be hauled for offsite disposal or be placed in a new on-site waste cell.

"My purpose for being here was that I wanted to start exposing them to the kinds of ideas that are being floated about what to do here," Drexler said, so people could take those ideas home, consider them and form their thoughts for the public hearing.

Drexler didn't get much time to expand on those ideas, so he decided to hold another meeting. "This one attracted so much interest and so much emotion that I just wanted another meeting," he said.

Drexler estimated that permanent cleanup will begin in a year and a half to two years. EPA's proposed cleanup plan will be presented at a public hearing, followed by a 30-day comment period. A Record of Decision will be completed and negotiations will be held with International Paper and BNSF Railway Co., as well as the EPA's support partners, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, with a consent decree expected in about September 2011. After a period of design, remedial actions will start in about March 2012.

St. Regis 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. IP is the current property owner.

Excessive levels of dioxin and other harmful chemicals prompted a human health and ecological risk assessment. Several tons of contaminated soil were removed, wells and extraction systems were installed to clean contaminated groundwater, and interim measures such as periodic housecleaning, topsoil removal and dust suppression on unpaved roads were taken to protect affected residents.

The St. Regis Superfund site has four sections:

- The northwest portion of the former operations area.

- The southwest operations area and location of an on-site vault.

- The former Cass Lake dump that accepted site waste.

- The residential area surrounding the site.