Whittier pollution may be leaking into nearby basements

Tests at a state Superfund site in the Whittier neighborhood have shown a larger-than-expected contamination area from a former dry-cleaning operation, a state official said.

Air tests have raised concerns that vapors from contaminated soils are leaking into the basements of two neighboring apartment buildings, according to a recently released consultant’s report.

The former Despatch Laundry Whiteway Cleaners site, 113 E. 26th St., is now a surface parking lot, located east of Joe’s Chicken Shack. A dry-cleaning service and a gas station operated on the property from the early 1900s to the mid-1980s, a state report said.

Pollution includes a dry cleaning solvent called perclhorethylene or PCE. It has contaminated the groundwater and roughly 10,000 cubic yards of soil, said Bay West, an environmental consultant hired by the state.

Removing the soil would cost more than $1 million, said a Bay West report issued in August. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans this spring to test a soil vapor extraction system to reduce contamination, said Steve Schoff, MPCA project manager.

"We thought we could remove it and build on top of it," Schoff said. "From the work they (Bay West staff) did, it was apparent that there was more soil that was heavily contaminated than we thought. It would be very expensive to dig it out."

Bay West estimates cleaning the site by soil vapor extraction would cost between $300,000 and $750,00.

Basement air samples taken at apartment buildings at 2609 and 2620 Stevens Ave. S., just east of the site, had PCE levels two to three times higher than the state health department’s long-term indoor air exposure limits, according to an Oct. 29 Bay West report. Levels of Trichloroethene (TCE), another solvent, also exceeded those limits.

An August report from Bay West indicates that high concentrations of PCE, particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas, "can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness and death."

The report said breathing TCE for long periods of time "may cause nerve, kidney and liver damage."

Jim Kelly, a health assessor for the Minnesota Department of Health who works on evaluating contaminated sites, said the department’s exposure limits are very conservative to assure public health protection. They are based on daily exposure for 70 years.

He said he had not yet reviewed the reports, but his understanding of the results "are not an immediate cause for concern," he said. More tests are needed to determine whether the vapors are coming from contaminated soil or other items stored in the basement.

Bay West has recommended taking another sample in the basement of the two apartment buildings, with better controls. If contamination levels continue to exceed health department long-term exposure limits, it recommends "obtaining ambient air samples from the ground floor of the building to determine if PCE and/or TCE are present in the living areas."

Bay West’s testing showed that pollution from the site had spread east under I-35W, consistent with the easterly flow of groundwater. A well at East 26th Street and Portland Avenue showed PCE levels just above state long-health risk values.

Groundwater contamination does not create a health risk, an MPCA publication said. "The City of Minneapolis drinking water supply is not taken from ground water in the area. So no one can become exposed to the chemicals through the drinking water."

Hennepin County owns the tax-forfeited land. A task force of city, county and neighborhood leaders had recommended giving development rights to Ed Bell and Alan Chazin, who had proposed building a 15-unit housing development with first-floor commercial space on the site.

Schoff could not give a timeline for the pilot vapor extraction study, let alone how long it might take to clean the site.