The next stage in a thorny Northeast environmental situation is about to happen, and 40 concerned Holland neighborhood residents came to the Firefighters Hall and Museum on October 30 to hear an update.
The Universal Plating Incorporated, a metal-plating operation at the corner of 19th Avenue NE and Monroe Street, became property of the state in 2015 through a property tax forfeit, and has since been the site of an extensive cleanup. With the structures now empty and certified free of chemical waste hazards, building demolition is scheduled to begin. Several Hennepin County staff members were present at the meeting, and after an introduction by outgoing County Commissioner Linda Higgins, Senior Environmental Scientist Lance Robinette began the presentation.
Robinette is the manager for the environmental portion of the project, through his office at the Department of Environment and Energy at Hennepin County Public Works. He noted that the 65-year operation of the company, which ended in 2009, had left a lot of environmental contamination on its site. This came to light when one of the owners tried to sell the property, resulting in UPI doing environmental due diligence and entering into the state’s voluntary investigation program.
But the sale never occurred, and the cleanup never happened. In 2015, the site forfeited to the state of Minnesota for non-payment of property taxes. The property is now managed on behalf of the state by Hennepin County’s Resident and Real Estate Services (RRES). After the forfeiture, RRES ordered a cleanup of the site. At the same time, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was notified that contamination had been found during the voluntary investigation.
Robinette said a specialty cleaning company was hired at that time to come in and segregate all the chemicals, laboratory-test them, identify how they needed to be packaged, which could be recycled, which ones could go to treatment plants to be treated and discharged, and those that had to go to hazardous-waste facilities. After the chemical containers were removed, the buildings’ interiors were pressure-washed to help dislodge any remaining heavy metals and chemicals. The collected waste water came back with high levels of chromium. The cleanup also produced 4,000 pounds of sludge, containing elevated levels of cadmium and cyanide. Robinette added, “A great deal of time was spent collecting these chemicals and finding the proper home for their end disposal. Over the last couple of years, you may have seen trucks leaving the site with waste. We’ve done a lot of work to get the building to the point where we can safely demolish the buildings.”
The county has developed a contract specification to control the credentials and vet the contractors that would be allowed to demo the building. Ultimately, Veit Company was chosen, based on their record for safety, past performance on other contaminated sites, in-place professional health and safety teams and trained personnel. The county also has in place a construction contingency plan in case something unexpected is found. A third-party consultant will be on site to insure that Veit follows the health and safety plan, the emission control plan, and the contingency plan. Robinette said that the demolition should take two weeks, with completion by November 27.
People attending the meeting had questions, beginning with the state of the site right now. A woman asked whether ground water and drinking water would be affected. Robinette replied that there is groundwater contamination, which has not migrated from the site. He added that heavy metals will not move from the site, there are no wells present, and the homes in the area use municipal water.
MPCA hydrogeologist Christopher Formby responded to a question about air quality around the site: “Our main concern now is soil-based contamination. PCE (Tetrachloroethylene) and TCE (Trichloroethylene) solvents are like water; they evaporate. So when they move from liquid to vapor, they leave molecules in the air. Breathing that air has an associated cancer risk. We’re going into people’s homes and testing the air inside and underneath the house. We’re also out in the right-of-way testing for soil vapors.
“We are doing two rounds of testing to reduce variabilities, and to this point we haven’t found air in anyone’s home that is above acceptable risk levels. We’ll continue testing during the heating season, finishing around March 31.”
Formby answered a question about the testing location, saying, “We started on the west side of Universal Plating, to the railroad tracks, because that’s the way the vapor plume was moving, and there have been no issues there, or north of the site. We’re concentrating on the south and southeast, because that’s where the groundwater plume is moving. We have three monitoring wells there, and we’re measuring groundwater flow.”
There were several questions about what happens after the demolition. Some people expressed surprise to find out that, while the concrete slabs of the buildings will be sealed, the soil on the site will not be removed. Robinette said, “Typically, the soil is removed just before the site is slated for re-development. Basically, containing it on site, not disturbing it is a standard control used throughout the state for contaminated sites. The level of cleanup depends on the end use of the site; environmental cleanup for future residential use is stricter than industrial. We don’t have an end use for the property at this time, so it needs to be maintained by RRES until a new owner or a public use can be found.” He added that pits on the site will be filled and fencing will be installed and the site monitored for trespassing.
First Ward City Council member Kevin Reich commented, “I think that the community that was affected by this site should reap any benefits of the future use of the site. Senior housing possibly, but a recreational, youth-oriented project has always been at the top of my list. This has taken a lot of work, a lot of money, and that’s our money, by the way, the citizens’ and taxpayers’. We’re trying to do the right thing for our neighbors and our kids. We didn’t cause this problem; we’re cleaning up someone else’s problem. Is there any avenue for recompense for the extraordinary expense in public dollars to clean up somebody’s mess?”
Formby said, “We obviously know who ran the plating company. They’ve been formally named as owners. We haven’t started a cost recovery process yet; it involves attorneys and requests for information, and there’s a strong suspicion that there’s no money. Some of these plating companies have insurance policies; if we’re able to make a claim on a policy, we’ll pursue it that way. But it’s a long process.”
As Robinette concluded the meeting, he said, “In a perfect world, somebody wants the site, everybody likes the end use of the site, that somebody that likes the site has the money for a voluntary investigation and cleanup process, he comes in and remediates the site with his money, and everyone wins.”