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New round of environmental testing underway on Leech Lake Reservation
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An environmental sampling crew from the Twin Cities collects soil samples from a grassy field. The 125-acre site was once filled with stacks of logs soaked in chemicals. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
A new round of soil testing is underway at the St. Regis Superfund site on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. The former St. Regis wood treatment plant operated near downtown Cass Lake for about 30 years. The plant left behind cancer-causing chemicals in the soil and water. The federal government has been working to clean up the mess since the mid-1980s. But the site is still contaminated and poses a health risk to people living there.

Cass Lake, Minn. — An environmental sampling crew from the Twin Cities huddles at the back of an SUV. They're about to begin collecting soil samples from a grassy field. The 125-acre site was once filled with stacks of logs. They were the size of telephone poles and soaked with chemicals. The testers are plotting sample points on a grid.

It's a hot day. The testers are sweating in their white protective suits and rubber boots and gloves. They're covered head to toe because the stuff they're dealing with is dangerous. It's toxic. Environmental Protection Agency officials keep an eye on the testers to make sure they're following collection procedures.

Along the edge of the field is a neighborhood of modest homes, probably built in the 1940s and 50s. There's no fence separating the houses from this Superfund clean-up site. In fact, no barricades at all. Local people have been walking on this soil for years. And now, they're worried.

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Image Luther Swanson

They've been exposed to dioxin and other chemicals known to cause a variety of diseases. Luther Swanson has lived in one of the homes for 45 years. He wanders over to watch the testing. Swanson remembers back to when the St. Regis wood treatment plant was in his back yard.

"There's our house, right there," says Swanson. "And it was so stinky and noisy and greasy, and you walked through it every day to go to school."

Swanson's dad had prostate cancer. He says all his family members suffer from chronic nervous disorders.

"If you had us all in one room you would see the similarities of what the problem is," said Swanson. "I mean, talking and words not being able to come out right, and interrupting and, you know, no patience, and taking medication for anxiety attacks... It is the result of this. There's no other way it can happen to a whole family. We got it from drinking it, smelling it, playing in it, you know, living in it."

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Image Tim Drexler

Others in the neighborhood have similar health problems. Families claim high rates of cancer, auto-immune diseases and birth defects. Tim Drexler works for the Environmental Protection Agency. He's interviewed dozens of Cass Lake residents.

"How can you feel anything but incredible compassion for people who have spent years in these kinds of conditions," said Drexler. "What we have to do now is try to determine, try to quantify what might still be here from the remedial work that was done in the mid-1980s."

Many people in Cass Lake say they thought the St. Regis site was mostly cleaned up years ago. But according to Superfund law, a site like this has to be checked every five years. The EPA did that in 2001. Those tests revealed high levels of dioxin still in the soil. Dioxin also showed up in fish from nearby Pike Bay and Cass Lake.

This latest round of testing is meant to confirm those results. But it may also show the problem has gotten worse. EPA officials say there's reason to believe wind-blown contaminants have spread into housing areas outside the Superfund boundaries. The test crew will take more than 100 soil samples. This time they'll include residential properties, the Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School campus and sites near the Chippewa National Forest.

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Image Shirley Nordrum

Leech Lake tribal officials have long been frustrated with the slow-moving bureaucracy of the federal clean-up effort. They've worried the St. Regis site is still dangerous. A new University of Minnesota study of the site confirms some of those concerns. The University assembled panels of experts to review existing data. The study concluded the EPA and International Paper, the company that owns the site, didn't do enough to protect human health.

Carl Richards is a biology professor at University of Minnesota, Duluth. He directed the study. Richards says there were glaring holes in available data and inadequate monitoring of soil and water. The Superfund site is now open. People can walk on it. Children can play there. The university study suggests the area be fenced off until it's cleaned up.

"The problem was that I think this site was kind of in the middle of nowhere, and there's not a large city right next to it, so perhaps there wasn't enough attention given to the site over the years," Richards said. "They've been out there sort of screaming in the woods. And this definately backs up many of their allegations."

Shirley Nordrum is an environmental specialist with the Leech Lake Band's natural resources division. Nordrum has been working nearly full time on the Superfund problem.

"In my heart, I kind of feel like, yeah. It's the environmental justice type philosophy that people that are poor or in remote areas where they don't have a lot of, say, technical resources or money available to look at things as closely as they probably should, lends to some inequities in clean-up," said Nordrum.

For the EPA's part, agency officials say technology has advanced since clean-up first began in 1984. Clean-up standards were lower then. Now, more is known about dioxin and the danger it poses.

At the test site, a man in a white protective suit pounds a stainless steel tube into the ground. He'll pull out a cone of soil, put it in a glass jar, then label and seal it. Neighborhood resident Luther Swanson shrugs as he watches the work. Swanson says he's glad there's a new round of testing. But there's a note of dispair in his voice.

"We live here. This is our town, so you have to clean it... clean the damn mess up," said Swanson. "And they can't even clean it all. It's going to take them hundreds of years to do this... Life is going to be short, I believe, for some of us, and it's just, how else could you think of it, living in that much pollution. Who's the next one that's going to get cancer. That's what we have to look forward to."

The latest soil sampling should be concluded in a few weeks. EPA officials say it's likely the results will lead to removal of soil yet this year in some of the dirtiest areas.

Meanwhile, a larger study is underway that includes more water testing in Pike Bay and Cass Lake. And the Minnesota Department of Health is working with federal agencies on a broad health assessment of the area. The study could confirm what local residents have been saying all along: that pollution in their own front yards is making them sick.

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