Lake band says report confirms fears about Superfund site
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
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
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
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.
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
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.