USA Today finds old Minnesota lead plant sites

2:41 PM, Apr 19, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two sites in the Twin Cities are among 400 such locations nationwide noted in a special investigation published by USA Today on Thursday morning. The probe identified potential pollution sites at old factories that the article claims did not get enough reaction from government authorities.

"What our investigation found was that, in many cases, very little was done to investigate," said Alison Young, USA Today reporter. "About 10 years ago, the government was warned about more than 400 sites across the country that were these potential old lead smelting factories that had been forgotten over time because they operated from the 1930s to the 1960s, before the EPA and other agencies were created."

The 14 month investigation centered on so-called ghost factories, where industrial work was once conducted, then closed. The two sites in the Twin Cities were the Northwestern Smelting and Refinery in Minneapolis and the National Lead Company in St. Paul.

Young told KARE 11 on Thursday's Sunrise Newscast about the two Twin Cities sites, "where government regulators said they could find no evidence of these smelters," said Young, "but USA Today's investigation did find evidence that they once operated in those areas."

USA Today found two photos from the 1940s of the Northwestern Smelting plant at 2325 Hiawatha Avenue on the Minnesota Historical Society archives. Viewers who click on the USA Today interactive investigation website can also see how the investigators located the old National Lead site by using old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps.

"They will be able to see these old maps," explained Young. "They will see the smelters drawn as they were in operation and they are overlaid on Google maps so you can see what it looked like then and now."

Of particular concern in the nationwide study is the possibility of lead contamination in neighborhoods around the sites.

"We did soil testing both in Minneapolis and in St. Paul and all of those test results are available at USA.com," said Young. "The site in Minneapolis is right along Hiawatha Avenue where there has been a (light) rail line put in as well as a bike trail. Soil moving, actually, is a protective thing, a good thing and we did not find as much contamination right there. But there were areas of elevated lead levels in the neighborhood nearby."

"In St. Paul, that site is near Harriet Island Park...We did do some soil testing in Harriet Island Park and did not find elevated levels of lead," said Young.

Young noted that the park and former smelter location sit on the Mississippi River flood plain, which may have been fortunate for diminishing any risk from the National Lead plant. However, Young pointed out that there might be risk of lead soil contamination "because of so much leaded gasoline as well."

The USA Today article online said that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials said they were not able to establish the existence of the old smelters, although USA Today was able to identify them.

Officials of both the MPCA and the local office of the EPA were out of state and unavailable for comment to KARE 11 on Thursday.

The area just south of the old Northwestern Smelting and Refinery plant was the subject of a 7 year project to remove soil contaminated by an old CMC Heartland fertilizer plant at Hiawatha and 28th Street. The plant operated from 1938 to1968. The identified contaminant there was Arsenic. Soil samples of a three-quarter mile circle around the old plant site showed high, sometimes dangerous, levels of arsenic in residential areas.

From 2004 to 2011, the EPA removed and replaced more than 45,000 tons of contaminated soil from more than 500 properties in South Minneapolis because of the arsenic contamination. According to information in the USA Today investigation, MPCA officials did not think there was sufficient need to test the area for possible lead contamination as far back as 2002.

The project was made possible by Recovery Act funding provided to the EPA.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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