Corson’s Corner airs out dirty laundry

Dirty laundry

Would you live on a state Superfund site, where pollutants such as petroleum and perchloroethylene (PCE), the primary solvent used in dry cleaning, seeped into the soil for 86 years?

This time next year, somebody may.

This September, if all goes well, Chazin-Bell Developers will begin building a 14-unit condo-retail complex on the former Despatch Laundry site at 2614 Stevens Ave. and 113 E. 26th St.

Two years ago, the Whittier Alliance selected Alan Chazin and Ed Bell to redevelop what is now known as Corson’s Corner (after a former property owner). However, construction can’t start until pollution levels are low enough – and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approves.

For the last few years, vacuums have sucked out the subsurface filth dumped by gas stations and laundries from 1900 to 1986. The temporary system’s goal is to make the soil safe enough to be trucked to a Pennsylvania facility that will further decontaminate it.

The new condos will be guarded by a permanent vapor extraction system installed beneath the building indefinitely, or for as long as it takes to draw out any contamination stuck underneath.

The goal of the $1.3 million effort is to make sure vapors from the poisoned lot don’t seep into neighboring basements. Data collected a year ago showed that some underground pollution plumes migrated into three nearby basements: Bruce Lundeen’s home, 2620 Stevens Ave.; The Fallout Urban Art Center, 2609 Stevens Ave.; and Michael Garity’s woodworking business Imagineering, 2615 Stevens Ave.

Environmental consultant Bay West, the agency testing the soil, assured residents that the pollution hadn’t reached unsafe levels.

Bay West stated that exposure was harmful only if one spent all or most of his or her time at home in the sample area over a period of 30 years.

Soil-sucking

The Despatch site’s current Active Vapor Extraction system is like an oversized vacuum with a hose, said Hennepin County Project Manager Harold Troup.

The fumes are sucked through underground pipes installed into "hot spots" with particularly high contamination levels. Pipes overlap so the entire area is covered. Pollutants are collected in two 5,000-gallon containers filled with carbon to trap the vapors – sort of like vacuum bags. The carbon is replaced when it is saturated.

The permanent system – which is passive because it won’t pump unless needed – will go in once the lot is excavated this summer, drawing contamination from as deep as 30 feet.

A vapor barrier will be the second line of defense – though instead of just blocking ground moisture, it will block chemicals seeping into the building.

A large rubber membrane secured to the new foundation’s underside will keep any plumes from penetrating the living area. If any chemicals leak into the building, monitors would trigger the vacuums and suck pollutants back into carbon filters.

Otherwise, said MPCA Hydrologist Cathy O’Dell, "if [fumes] collected beneath the building and accumulated, then the concentration would be harmful.

She added, "The temporary system has been working very well. We’re doing several layers of safety just in case they’re needed. And we’re doing a high level of testing to be sure that everything is happening as it should be."

Other sites such as Apache Plaza in Northease Minneapolis, and Minneapolis’ Washington Live/Work Building and Heritage Park demanded soil cleanup.

Said O’Dell, "I feel [the Corson condos] would be safe for people to move into. Many buildings in the Twin Cities area are being built with vapor systems. It’s not unusual."

Marketing the site

After construction, Bell and Chazin must disclose to potential occupants that the site is undergoing remediation. Chazin, who said that he and Bell don’t specialize in cleaning up dirty sites, called their efforts a "leap of faith."

However, Bell said that marketing the condos would mainly require educating customers.

His case: "You have to put it into context. If you live in the Southwest corridor, airplanes dump fuel all the time. Stuff like fertilizer, runoff or sediment in the street, are also pollutants. There’s a magnitude of things. Some just get a higher visibility. There are dozens and dozens of successful projects where the problems have been mitigated."

Added Bell, "Buildings themselves can be more harmful than soil."

A brighter future

Neighbors are enthusiastic about the redevelopment, though their faith in the cleanup varies.

Bruce Lundeen, who owns two houses near the site, including one hit by the plume, is eager for the condo development. He added that he felt confident the cleanup would ensure safety.

"I would move into a condo there because I know how conscientious they are," he said. "They are very serious about what they do. If it’s a health risk, they’ll make sure it’s addressed."

However, Peter Wohler, the director of Source, a faith-based organization that assists homeless and at-risk youth and sponsors the Fallout Art Gallery, disagreed. He said that if he were in the market for a condo priced somewhere around $200,000, he’d be looking elsewhere – adding that the only reason the Fallout was so close to the Despatch site is because of his low budget.

Wohler, his wife and two young children live above the Fallout, and overlook the Despatch site. Migrating vapors were also discovered in his basement last year, a fact that mildly concerned him, he said. What scared him more was the prospect of excavation.

"They say that they’re filtering out the dirt to an OK level, but it’s not like they’re going to install a huge bubble over it. To the layperson it almost seems illogical that it won’t have any effect. I have no choice but to trust them [the authorities]."

Wally Schwab, Despatch Laundry former chief engineer who lived in Whittier for 51 years, said he’s living testimony to how negligible the exposure to PCE and petroleum is since he’s now 72.

Although primarily a boiler engineer who didn’t always work with the dangerous chemicals, Schwab was susceptible whenever he had to fix something.

Michael Garity was also exposed. Vapors were found in his basement workshop.

Still, Garity – whose front window faces the Despatch site – can’t wait for a better view. "We’ve got to get something over there. I think it’ll dress up the neighborhood. It was pretty ugly when Despatch was there," Garity said.

Garity, who’s built cabinets and other specialty wood products in his basement for 20 years, remembered when the warehouse-like Despatch Laundry and its distinctive smokestacks ruled his view. He can also recall childhood days when bums hung out in the abandoned buildings and he played around the building.

When the Despatch building was demolished, Garity’s quality of life improved. "When the building was there, it was really dark here. Now, without the buildings there’s light in here. I feel perfectly safe," he said.

The burden of cleaning up the wasteland that was left, like many of the others, fell on the shoulders of the neighborhood, county, city and state. Abandoned by its former tenants, ownership was passed off to the county as a tax forfeited land.

Troup said that such big jobs are worth it in the long run.

"As less and less billable real estate is available, the more valuable the property becomes and the more justifiable it becomes to spend millions," he said. "Our department has a judiciary responsibility to allocate our available funds in the most effective and reasonable manner. The overriding philosophy is that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to be trustees of this real estate."

While various government agencies continue to collect soil samples and monitor the results of the temporary vacuum system, Chazin and Bell are fine-tuning the architectural details for Corson’s Corner.