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Great Lakes Article:

Leech Lake band says report confirms fears about Superfund site

Posted 10/09/2002

CASS LAKE, Minn. - Shirley Nordrum had just started a part-time job for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe when, bored one night, she picked up an old report on a nearby wood-treatment plant that had shut down.

What Nordrum found in the report sidetracked her plans to go to medical school and began an 11-year battle between her American Indian band, the government and an international paper company over the health of the land.

Today, Nordrum and Leech Lake leaders believe they have proof that the St. Regis Corp. plant contaminated their reservation, their fish and maybe even their children: a long-sought Environmental Protection Agency report released last month that found dioxins, furans and other compounds left behind from treating wood.

Although EPA officials say it's premature to conclude the site is dangerously polluted, band members whose children swam in the site's holding ponds or played in piles of treated wood are suddenly questioning health problems in their families.

"When you have an entire little community sit down and everybody starts talking about this person who died of cancer and that person who died of cancer, you really have to wonder," Nordrum said.

According to the EPA, all the soil samples taken from a residential area on the site exceeded its "conservative" contamination threshold for human health levels of dioxins and furans. Eighteen of the 20 soil samples taken in the neighborhood have tested above accepted levels for semivolatile organic compounds.

The St. Regis plant opened in 1957 on 125 acres of prime land in the Chippewa National Forest between Cass Lake and Pike's Bay in north-central Minnesota. At the plant, wood destined to be used for railroad ties, telephone poles and bridge supports was treated with pentachlorophenol, a preservative, and creosote.

For decades, sludge from the treatment process was dumped in on-site disposal ponds, the Cass Lake city dump and at least twice at a nearby fish hatchery, until 1977, when St. Regis began to haul it to hazardous-waste sites outside Minnesota.

The site got a preliminary inspection and went on the EPA's National Priorities List in need of cleanup in 1984. It was taken over by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under a new state Superfund law the same year, becoming one of MPCA's first major cleanup sites.

Champion International Corp. bought St. Regis in 1985, and closed the plant near Cass Lake nine months later.

Champion -- on the advice of the MPCA -- put in a groundwater treatment plant to treat water that was extracted from the site and added wells to the city dump to monitor potential contamination. It also built a containment vault to store soil found to be contaminated by a simple surface test.

No detailed chemical analysis was done to thoroughly test the area for contamination.

A few years later is when Nordrum, a pre-med student spending the summer of 1991 researching pesticide use on the reservation, became interested.

As she read the report, Nordrum wondered why the state, not the federal government, was overseeing the site cleanup when it was on reservation land. And why was the site only checked visibly for contamination? The questions turned to concern about an area where many band members lived before Leech Lake began building tribal housing in the mid-1970s north of town.

To Nordrum and many other tribal leaders, the possibility of widespread contamination from the Regis site was a new concern. Many have known since the plant opened that the chemicals used to treat the wood were not healthy -- "It was never any good," Leech Lake Chairman Eli Hunt said -- but band members cannot recall being told by the government that contamination may have been a creeping threat.

Susan Johnson, an MPCA project leader based in Duluth, called it "unfortunate" that Leech Lake members and others who lived on the site may not have been aware of contamination until the recent EPA report. Johnson, who has only overseen the site for about 18 months, said there would have been public meetings when the state started its cleanup.

Gary Krueger, an MPCA environmental planner, said agency records show that notice of a public comment period on adding the St. Regis site to the state Superfund list was published in 1984 in the state register. A mailing list for the notice includes an address for a person on the Leech Lake Reservation Business Committee, among many other destinations, including state representatives from the area and the Cass Lake city clerk.

In 1995, the EPA agreed to take over the site -- on Leech Lake's request -- after the MPCA completed a five-year review that found "further action might be necessary to protect human health and the environment."

Last October, the EPA began mapping a chemical analysis of surface water, sediment, groundwater and soil samples throughout the site. Leech Lake used its own money to test fish in nearby lakes.

Linda Kern, the EPA project manager for the Regis site, said the results last month came in screening tests designed to catch even low levels of pollution. She cautioned that the results of a second round of tests, expected in another month or so, are needed to determine the health risk.

But Leech Lake already has issued a fish-consumption warning after its tests on walleye, northern pike and whitefish from Pike's Bay and Cass and Ball Club lakes found potentially harmful levels of metals, PCBs and dioxins and furans.

Jennie Reyes grew up in the popular residential area that was known as "Regis" and "Southside" before it became known as Superfund site No. MND057597940.

Reyes and her classmates used to walk over stacks of treated wood on the way to school, and they would swim and canoe in the holding ponds. Without running water, her family relied on an outside pump well.

She remembers a haze that would creep from the St. Regis plant and hover over their tiny home, where she lived until her family moved north of town when she was a teenager.

Over the years, Reyes said, she's lost several aunts and uncles to cancer and some of her grandchildren were born with health problems. One grandson was born without thumbs, she said. Both of the baby's grandmothers were raised on the Superfund site.

It wasn't until Reyes began seeing EPA members wearing hazard gear and taking samples from her old neighborhood last autumn that she first heard about possible contamination. Reyes, initially chatty, grows serious as she questions the years in between.

"At first I was angry. Why didn't anybody let us know? Now I just want them to let other people know, know it's contaminated," Reyes said.

Leech Lake has hired Richard A. Du Bey, a Seattle attorney who specializes in environmental law, to pursue the band's interests as the EPA continues testing.

Although EPA is doing a second round of tests to see if further cleanup is needed, Du Bey said independent water, fish and health experts who reviewed the site already have concluded that the environment and humans are at risk.

The responsible party for the Superfund site is now International Paper Co., which purchased Champion two years ago. A spokeswoman for Stamford, Conn.-based International, Stacy Wygant, said it was premature to comment on the EPA findings.

This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.

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