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Cass Lake Superfund toxic tort case settled for confidential amounts


By Laurie Swenson Pioneer Staff Writer 

Three years after interim measures were ordered to address contamination in the area of the St. Regis Superfund site in Cass Lake, the Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps toward permanent action. 

Among the next steps is a feasibility study to gather cleanup options, said Tim Drexler, remedial project manager with the EPA, during a public meeting Wednesday night at Cass Lake-Bena High School to update residents on the process. 

"We do feel we have enough information to draw conclusions to make steps for the site," Drexler said. 

The St. Regis Paper Co. operated a wood treatment plant in Cass Lake from 1958-1984. The site was placed on the EPA's Superfund List in 1984. 

The site has four sections: 

  • The northwest portion of the former operations area.
  • The southwest operations area and an on-site vault.
  • The former Cass Lake dump where wastes were left.
  • The residential area surrounding the site.

The EPA has concluded that the interim dust remedy has reduced risks to residents, but the area continues to pose a health and ecological risk. 

The feasibility study will develop options for actions to address those risks. The options must provide protection to human health and the environment and comply with federal, state and tribal laws. 

A special notice for the study was issued April 28 to International Paper, BNSF Railway Company, Cass Forest Products Inc. and the city of Cass Lake, the potential responsible parties. 

The parties were asked to contact the EPA in 30 days and provide a good-faith offer within 60 days, with a signed agreement due in 90 days. The EPA received a letter May 29 from International Paper indicating the potential responsibility parties' willingness to negotiate. 

Tribal and state input will be recorded and a public hearing will be held for community input. There will also be a written comment period. The feasibility study is expected to be completed in 2009. 

The EPA will make a final cleanup choice in a record of decision, which Drexler said could be expected in 2010, with remedial actions following. 

The 2005 interim plan called for clean fill be placed over yards, dust suppressant on nearby unpaved roads, thorough housecleaning of affected houses, including replacement of carpets, and additional periodic housecleaning. International Paper completed the initial housecleaning, soil cover and first application of dust suppressant in 2006. Periodic housecleaning and dust-suppressant applications continue. 

The EPA is also investigating groundwater at the former Cass Lake dump to investigate the extent of tar recently found in a monitoring well, delineate the extent of a known diesel plume and improve water quality monitoring. It also plans to investigate the Leech Lake Band Hatchery water wells. 

One of the possible permanent remedies would include excavation of soil, with clean soil brought in, Drexler said. 

The most drastic measure would be relocation of residents, which is very rarely done, Drexler said, and usually only when contamination cannot be brought to a safe level. 

"I understand these things take time," said Rep. Frank Moe (DFL-Bemidji). "We're talking 20-plus years already. You've got a community that's trying to pick itself up by its bootstraps." 

Moe asked what would happen if agreement could not be reached. "I'm not guessing they would be willing to clean up to the level most of the people in the community would like," he said. 

EPA attorney Mony Chabria said a lawsuit would be filed in that case. 

"A big step has now been taken," said Rita Messing, supervisor of site assessment and consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health's Division of Environmental Health. She added that the risk and the need for remedies have been acknowledged and will be acted upon. "I think people should realize it's a big step and let things happen a little bit." 

Moe said he was concerned about the city of Cass Lake and Cass Lake Forest products being considered potential responsible parties, considering they have significantly smaller resources than IP and BNSF. "How do you have a level playing field?" 

Drexler noted that the four parties do not have to sign on to complete the work. "We would accept just one." 

"So essentially, stay tuned," Moe said. 

"We understand there have been some meetings among the four groups," Drexler said. "We are obviously sensitive to the fact this is a very small community without much resources." 

Dioxin levels 

During soil sampling in 2001 and 2003, dioxin levels on the St. Regis site exceeded the EPA's dioxin policy for residential limits of 1,000 parts per trillion. But the ultimate goal is to bring the level to a far more conservative number. The MDA recommended levels of dioxin contamination is 20 ppt for residential areas and 30 ppt for commercial-industrial areas. The Leech Lake Band has set a limit of 10 ppt. 

Bemidji attorney Mark Rodgers of Rodgers Law Office is representing some Cass Lake residents in real estate and injury lawsuits against International Paper, BNSF, Dow and Monsanto. 

"Some of my clients have been living in that very high level of dioxin contamination of the soil in water for many years," Rodgers said after the meeting, noting that the residents have serious health concerns and that the value of their real estate is severely compromised. 

"I think the thing that's lost in this is that the background soil level of dioxin is 3 parts per million in the Cass Lake area," he said. "We've got levels at 1,000 and above at this site for 20 years or longer. 

"We do know this - 3 parts per million is a heck of a lot less than a thousand." 

Another round 

Drexler said gathering input for the feasibility study will be very similar to the process held for the interim measures. 

"The community has seen some of the impact of their input," he said. 

"This is really democracy in action," said Don de Blasio, community involvement coordinator with the EPA. "This is people's chance to communicate to the government." 

In another development, the EPA has been made aware that on May 19-22, drillers representing some homeowners used probes to sample groundwater near the contaminant plume, with no coordination with the EPA, the Leech Lake Band or the MPCA. The EPA is formally investigating, Drexler said, adding that such actions can create liability under Superfund law.

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