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EPA plan tackles toxic dust in Cass Lake homes
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Several Cass Lake residents performed a skit recently to encourage community involvement in the Superfund cleanup process. The performers, including Cass Lake Mayor Elaine Fleming, far right, wore protective masks and plastic bags on their feet to demonstrate the dangers of the chemical pollution. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says household dust samples from homes within the St. Regis Superfund site in Cass Lake contain dangerous levels of dioxin and arsenic. Those were chemicals used for decades at a wood treatment plant in the neighborhood.

Now, the EPA is taking public comment on a plan to clean up dust in some 40 homes within the Superfund site. But many people in Cass Lake say the plan doesn't go far enough.

Cass Lake, Minn. — The St. Regis site is on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation near downtown Cass Lake. It's been on the federal government's Superfund list since 1984. About 125 acres are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Last year, the EPA removed about 2,400 tons of toxic top soil.

The site includes dozens of homes where families still live. Roberta Wind and her family lived in the neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s. Wind spoke last week at an EPA-sponsored public meeting.

"I'm damn angry about this, because I raised my kids in that area there," Wind said. "And now my great-grandchildren are getting birth defects from being born. Now you tell me. What are you going to do about these kids that are being born like that?"

There are lots of similar stories from people who lived in the Superfund site. Leslie Hough grew up in the neighborhood. He still lives there. As a kid, he played among the chemically treated logs and swam in contaminated holding ponds. Hough is convinced many in his family got sick from the exposure.

"I've got two sisters that can't have babies," said Hough. "I had a brother die of cancer. I have a sister with cancer. Another sister that was born with three kidneys. I was born with three carotid arteries. Things like that. Sure it makes me suspicious."

EPA officials say a final plan for cleaning the Superfund site won't be ready until next year. EPA project manager Tim Drexler says, in the interim, the agency is proposing that contaminated dust be removed from homes in the neighborhood.

I'm damn angry about this, because I raised my kids in that area there. And now my great-grandchildren are getting birth defects.
- Roberta Wind

"Our preferred option is for the 40 homes within the proximity of the St. Regis site, to have carpeting removed from the homes, new carpeting replacing that, have periodic housecleaning, and then also have clean soil brought into their yards," said Drexler.

That plan doesn't sit well with Hough. He says the EPA's plan to clean dust from his home is too little, too late.

"Sure they can come clean -- free housecleaning," joked Hough. "But it's ridiculous, because ... every time a truck goes by there's more in the air, comes in our house. So what's the use of even coming in and cleaning, when the next day it's going to be right back in there."

Many Cass Lake residents want the EPA to permanently move the people living in the neighborhood. That was an option the EPA considered. But Drexler says for the short term, relocation would be too costly and disruptive to the community. He said the cost for cleaning the 40 homes would be about $211,000. Relocation costs are estimated at more than $2.4 million.

"There's no immediate risk," said Drexler. "I mean, we're not evacuating people out of these homes right now. It's not a short term acute kind of threatening risk. But it is a long term risk."

Drexler says relocation would be a last resort. He says it's an option the EPA will consider again when the final cleanup plan is completed next summer.

Officials with Leech Lake's natural resources department have reluctantly signed on to the short term dust removal plan. Tribal Environmental Director Shirley Nordrum says the Superfund cleanup has gone on for more than 20 years, yet people are still at risk. Nordrum believes neighborhood residents need to be moved.

"That's always our dream," said Nordrum. "Lets just move everybody out to a new home somewhere else, and then just clean it up and decide what to do with that property from there. But that's kind of like winning the lottery, you know."

The EPA is accepting public comment on the dust cleanup proposal through July 8.