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UMore Park Contamination: Want Paradise? Put Up a Parking Lot

A new report on contamination at UMore Park in Rosemount found excessive residential land-use levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, PCBs and other toxins at nearly 200 individual test locations. But that shouldn't prevent future development, it concluded.

A new report on contamination at UMore Park in found excessive residential land-use levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, PCBs and other toxins at nearly 200 individual test locations spread around 71 tested Sites of Concern (SOC).

But that’s OK. 

At least that was the apparent message presented to a joint meeting of the Rosemount City Council and Planning Commission on Tuesday night.

The presenters said development could certainly move forward and the findings wouldn't hinder the University of Minnesota’s vision for an eco-friendly, self-sustaining community of 20,000-30,000 people in the not too distant future on the 5,000-acre site.

They’ll just have to be cognizant of what they put where to make the “real estate development of the century” come to fruition.

Over the last year, Barr Engineering conducted a Remedial Investigation (RI) on approximately 3500 acres of UMore Park at the behest of the University of Minnesota. The RI was intended to assess potential environmental impacts from the former Gopher Ordnance Works (GOW), a former U.S. Government smokeless gunpowder production facility that was in operation for approximately nine months during WW II, as well as some post GOW land use activities by the University of Minnesota and former leased tenants. (You can access the full report here.)

The acronym-laden final report was summarized in an informational presentation to Rosemount officials by Janet Dalgleish, a U of M Environmental Planner of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety; Rick Kubler, an attorney at Gray Plant Mooty, acting as outside legal counsel for the University of Minnesota; and Jim Eidem, the Senior Hydrogeologist and RI Project Manager for Barr Engineering.

“There are no conditions that will prevent future development at UMore,” said Dalgleish in introducing the results. “Additional studies will be needed, but the next level of studies will need to be based on development plans.”

What the Study Found

The contamination crib sheet from the RI looks something like this:

  • 71 SOCs were identified for priority testing based on previous study data and historical site use data. 
  • Of those, 39 SOCs tested above the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Tier 1 Soil Reference Values (SRV) for unrestricted residential land use. 
  • Within those 39 SOCs, 189 individual test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs.
  • 41 test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs for arsenic.
  • 33 test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs for lead.
  • 31 test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs for mercury.
  • 15 test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs for PCBs.
  • 40 test samples exceeded Tier 1 SRVs for PAHs.
  • Of those samples, 81 originated around the ABC Production Line subarea, 33 from GOW East, 25 from the GOW sewers, and 21 from the Navy Firing Range/Burning Grounds. Five other areas accounted for the rest.
  • Some of the most egregious current readings included levels of mercury at 200-times Tier 1 SRVs in the vast sewer system under UMore, lead levels in shallow soil at 15-times Tier 1 SRVs in the 10th Street Dump area, and arsenic levels of more than 3-times Tier 1 SRVs at the L and J Street Dump area.
  • The RI utilized 9 existing wells and 6 new monitoring wells to test groundwater. It found its highest chloroform reading at 7.9 ppb in one well. That reading is below the Health Risk Limit, according to the report, and well below the high of 72 ppb found in 1984. (Minnesota raised the health-based guideline for chloroform from 1.9 ppb to 57 ppb in 1988.)
  • Elevated nitrate-nitrogen levels were also found “above regulatory criteria” and above the Maximum Contaminate Level both in upgradient and downgradient groundwater areas. The presence of those contaminants were attributed to regional agricultural land uses.
  • Trace cannon powder was found at 29 locations.

What the Study Didn’t Find

The current study didn’t include previously sampled areas from smaller studies conducted by the EPA, MPCA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others, but did compile those historical data points for future use.

The study also didn’t include the former sites remediated via the Superfund due to ongoing testing by the EPA. Those sites include the former Burn Pit where the University of Minnesota incinerated approximately 90,000 gallons of laboratory chemicals, solvents, corrosives and medical waste in the 60s and 70s. They also include three former tenant-leased sites used for various industrial electrical salvage: George’s Used Equipment, Porter Electric and U.S. Transformer.

The EPA began investigating those sites after chloroform was found in residential drinking water in 27 Rosemount homes in 1984 and also in a monitoring well one-mile east of the burn pit site. The EPA also found “unacceptable carcinogenic” levels of lead, copper, and PCBs in the three industrial electrical sites. Those sites have been remediated under EPA monitoring since then and were removed from the national priority list in 2001. 

Remedies included a combination of on-site incineration, excavation and off-site disposal contaminated soils as well as groundwater pumping and treatment. Clay soil caps were placed over two of the sites. 

Studies are still conducted on those sites every five years with the latest report, the fourth, due this June.

The study also didn’t include testing at any current U of M tenant sites. Those sites would contractually need to be inspected upon termination of the current leases, according to Dalgleish and Kubler.

The study also identified what it called “significant data gaps” in some of the areas it did study. Releases of hazardous materials were identified in areas surrounding the Burn Pit, 160th Street dump, and Suspected Disposal Area, but the report acknowledged that those SOCs were “not fully delineated.”

The report did say that the RI provided sufficient detail to “provide adequate data to estimate the extent of the identified releases at the remaining SOCs in this subarea for the purposes of this report.”

The RI also did not include any data on the known asbestos at the site attributable to GOW, which Eidem said the University was “very well aware of” and was developing plans to deal with moving forward.

Health Risks and Future Development

So what does it mean?

According to the presentation, it simply means some areas aren’t necessarily suitable for residential homes or daycares in their present condition, but commercial and industrial development would be appropriate.

Even the problematic de-listed Superfund Sites that have been remediated would be able to move forward with the University’s futuristic vision under the right conditions.

“It would be possible to redevelop those areas but you’d have to go through the process of getting approval to do that,” said Kubler. “Right now you could do commercial or industrial in that area, put in a parking lot or a commercial building there. For George’s Used Equipment Shallow and UST, there is a soil cap, but depending on the levels of material below it, you could also perhaps simply parking lot over that or do a variety of other things that aren’t residential activities.”

The land use is the key. The main health threat, according to the report, stems from prolonged inhalation of dust and dermal contact due to soil disruption. Activities such as soil excavation, agricultural tilling and “miscellaneous digging” could potentially impact health over time. But the report also says that typical site-worker activities on commercial or industrial land don’t usually involve soil disruption. The report assessed current land-use activity only with regard to health and not potential future use.

The report did note one area of possible current concern. It stated: "Dust generated from the gravel access road from the Main Shops area to the ABC Line Subarea where PCBs were detected (in one of five samples) above the Tier 1 SRV may be of concern.  However, traffic in this area is limited to University vehicles and a few tenants."

But the implications for future development would seem to suggest that, as long as you're working or shopping at the hypothetical future organic grocery store, and not tending to your own backyard tomatoes and cucumbers all summer on some of those sites, with proper planning, the health risks would essentially mitigated. And proper planning would also pave the way for any future development.

The report stressed this was a preliminary look only to gain a broader view and would allow the University to “develop conceptual remedial strategies to address the identified releases, and to develop preliminary cost estimates for future investigation and remediation of the project area.”

Any future development would focus in on specific proposed land-use and additional studies would need to be undertaken to evaluate any possible need for remediation of those sites. 

But with 5,000 acres, there is also conceivably plenty of options to work around those issues.

The timeline for development and future studies remain murky. As do the details of how exactly the planned community will take shape.

“It’s in the visionary and conceptual stages at this point,” said Dalgleish. “It’s not yet at that level of detail."

“At this point in time to identify an investigation strategy, much less a remediation strategy for certain of these areas, would be putting the cart before the horse,” said Kubler. “Because, if it’s going to be a green space area - there is a large portion of the 5,000 acres that will be green space -  we wouldn’t want to go out and clean those up to residential standards, because there really wouldn’t be a point in that. So I think we have to let the process develop a little bit and see what’s proposed.”

City Reaction

Because it was an informational presentation only, and due to the large volume of data to consume and digest, immediate reaction from city officials was limited. They did, however, have plenty of questions. And plenty more are sure to come.

“I’m surprised to see the elevated levels of lead, arsenic and PCBs,” said Commissioner Vanessa Demuth. “To me the army is responsible for that clean-up.”

“There have been discussions with the Corps of Engineers about various aspects of this site,” said Kubler. “The Corps just had their budget cut again recently, and they have well over 1,000 sites that they’re addressing...They have not made GOW a significant priority. I think in part, that’s a good thing, in the sense that the levels that we’re seeing here of lead, arsenic, as examples, are not at the toxic levels" compared to some of the other sites. "So that’s a good thing as far as we’re concerned.”

"We would like to see the federal government clean up something that they were the cause of as well," added Dalgleish. 

Mayor Bill Droste noted that only 650 feet of the sewer system was evaluated with a remote-operated camera. 

“How many feet are out there?” he asked.

“Significantly more than that,” said Eidem who estimated there were “miles” of sewer-ways under the site.

"If we’re looking at future development, it sounds to me like there’s a fairly significant amount of excavation that will have to happen,” said Commissioner Wade Miller.

“It will certainly need to be addressed in an appropriate manner and in conjunction with approved land use,” said Eidem.

When asked what percentage of the total acreage the RI encompassed, Dalgleish explained that even though samples were taken from a small physical area, the data in the report was sufficient to encompass a broad site-wide view.

“We’re all looking forward to this sustainable community we’ve been hearing so much about,” said Council member Kim Shoe-Corrigan. “But we’re going to need assurances that it’s going to be safe.”

A formal public presentation and informational meeting on the current findings and future development of UMore Park will be held on June 28. Rosemount Patch will have further details as they become available.

Ron Spong May 25, 2012 at 12:51 PM
I was involved in the investigations of GOW and UMore Park from 1984 to 2005 and have remained in contact since then. I encourage a critical review of this current RI and also all preceeding investigations to understand the extent of and the potentional exposures to all contaminants of concern (COCs) at UMore Park and beyond. The current RI was neither complete nor exhaustive with respect to COCs. For example, no testing for dioxins and dibenzofurans was done in the PCB-contaminated sites. Previous testing during the UMRRC (U of Minn. Rosemount Research Center) Superfund investigation detected significant levels at Georges Used Equipment and US Transformer. The current RI noted additional sites with PCBs (e.g., roads sprayed with transformer oil). That suggests that dioxins and dibenzofurans may be more widely distributed. Asbestos is widespread as it was used extensively by GOW in building materials, insulation and fireproofing. The asbestos problem was complicated by the demolition of old GOW structures releasing friable asbestos from ACMs. Also, groundwater contamination is a significant issue that has not been investigated properly. The releases of explosives (DNT, DPA, etc.) to soil during and after GOW have been ongoing for 70 years allowing infiltration and migration to groundwater. No private wells have been tested since the mid-1980s, and those that were tested only evaluated VOCs related to the U's hazardous waste burn pits. Comments by Ron Spong
Randy Bohn May 25, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Hi Ron, Good to see you are still involved with this. You may remember my mother Juanita Bohn, who was very involved with this before her passing. You may recall there was also research done on cancer related illnesses in the area, proving to be one of the highest in the state. My mother would be very pleased to see you are still involved. It is amazing to me and many of the locals, that our officials would even consider building on top of a toxic waste dump. Randy Bohn
Ron Spong May 29, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Hi Randy, I certainly do remember your mother, Juanita, as well as your dad. It was her complaint that I received in January 1984 that eventually led to the Superfund investigation of now UMore Park. The State MPCA did not completely pursue all of the allegations of disposals and contaminant releases of the University and its tenants. Instead, they focused on a few sites over the 16 years. The former Gopher Ordnance Works (GOW) was not even investigated, as the MPCA had concluded in 1980 that the munitions plants had never been operational... or that's what the University Environmental Health and Safety Division told them. In reality, GOW's smokeless powder (January to October 1945) and acid (October 1944 to October 1945) production lines operated 24 hours/7 days per week. It wasn't until 2003 that the case was made to the US Army Corps of Engineers (in charge of cleaning up formerly used defense sites) that GOW had left hazardous wastes on site. However, the federal government is reneging on its duty to clean up GOW. It claims that most of the hazardous waste was dumped by the University and its tenants. Actually, they are both responsible. Your mother did what she could to get the ball rolling 28 years ago, and others have come forward as well. Unfortunately, the University and its consultants deny that any real problems exist, as if given enough time it will just go away. The clock continues to tick, but there is no real action. Best Wishes.

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