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Who will clean up Hennepin Paper?
By Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
July 15, 2002


The Hennepin Paper Plant towers over the Mississippi River in the central Minnesota town of Little Falls. The plant closed down in 1998 after more than 100 years of operation. And even though it was abandoned four years ago, the plant still sits near downtown Little Falls. City officials say it's time for the plant to be torn down. They say it could pollute the Mississippi and poses a health threat to nearby residents. But the plant has had many owners over the years and no one is sure who's responsible for the clean up.

Little Falls Alderman Urban Otremba and Morrison County Commissioner Bill Block survey damage from a recent fire at the Hennepin Paper Plant. The plant was abandoned four years ago. Local officials say they want it cleaned up before chemicals in the facility find their way to the Mississippi River.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

The Hennepin Paper Plant in Little Falls, is an industrial relic. It's windows are boarded up and it's surrounded by rusty iron works. A burned metal shed lays in a charred heap just outside the plant's main building. Piles of singed paper turn soggy, in a steady summer rain.

Little Falls Alderman Urban Otremba, says it's a depressing scene. He thinks the recent fire here was arson and he's afraid another fire could take out the whole aging facility.

Otremba worked at Hennepin Paper for 37 years and left his job just before the company went bankrupt and shut down in 1998. He says the paper plant was a good place to work, but it's time to tear it down. He's afraid leftover chemicals used in paper production will leak from the plant into the Mississippi River. Demolition and clean up estimates range from $1.5 to $3 million.

"Who can afford that?" Otremba asks. "The city certainly can't, the county can't and the person who owned it filed bankruptcy and he had no visible means of support, so what do we do with it?" he wonders.

The plant sits right on the banks of the the Mississippi River. But environmental officials say there's no evidence the old plant poses a danger to the river now. The concern is the building's future. Inside are sources of lead and asbestos. Right now the building keeps those hazardous contents contained. But the building is more than 100 years old.

Barefoot workers in front of a paper machine at the plant in 1900.
(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Jonathan Smith, says as the building ages it will start to pollute the surrounding area.

"As the building deteriorates the risk of asbestos and lead being released into the the outside environment increases, releases to the air, soil and river. Of course the worst case scenario is major flooding of the Mississippi River, as the condition of the building worsens, the implications of flooding become more severe," he says.

No one disputes that the plant should be torn down and cleaned up. But no one is sure who should take care of the work. The city owns some land at the plant, so does Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad. Most of the plant is located on land owned by Duluth based Minnesota Power. It's land that Minnesota Power leased to Hennepin Paper for more than one hundred years. Minnesota Power spokesman Terry Johnson says his company didn't make the mess at Hennepin Paper. But they've already spent a $500,000 on preliminary clean up. And he says the company will help locals find money to finish the work, before giving the land back to the city.

"We're working with the city of Little Falls, we are also working with elected officials both at the state and federal level to further improve the site, as well as pursue some economic development activities for that site", Johnson says.

Little Falls officials had hoped to get $1 million from the state's bonding bill this session to pay for part of the clean up. But the measure was one of those vetoed by Governor Ventura. They'll go back to the legislature with their request for help next session. And they hope they can get help from the Federal government too. The EPA has never been involved at Hennepin Paper. And officials admit because of recent Federal budget cuts, a Superfund designation looks unlikely.

A city official took this photo three years after the Hennepin Paper Plant was abandoned. City leaders say the plant needs to be torn down before it collapses or a flood sweeps it into the nearby Mississippi.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

Morrison County Commissioner Bill Block says Hennepin Paper needs to be cleaned up. The rain he's standing in is the perfect example of why, he says. Rain hits the concrete, flows over ash, paper and old chemical residue and then straight into the Mississippi River. Block says even if the plant doesn't pose environmental danger now, it will in time.

"The longer it stays here the more potential you have for run-off and contamination. If it was cleaned up now we would have a better chance of getting everything than if it stays too long and the roof collapses... so it would be nice to get it cleaned up," Block says.

Local officials in Little Falls, say if the plant isn't torn down it will come down on it's own. The plant was flooded a few years ago by the Mississippi, and some chemical tanks floated into the river. They say it's just a matter of time before a flood sweeps the whole building into the river. They say if that happens, it won't be just a local issue. It becomes a problem for downstream residents in cities like St. Cloud or Minneapolis who get their drinking water from the same river.