The anxiety of living in a neighborhood where a toxic chemical lurks underground showed clearly Tuesday as current and former residents from the Como area of southeast Minneapolis discussed the rediscovery of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in their soil.
“This may be the answer to the mystery, to everything that has been going on,” said Patty Manion, who grew up in the neighborhood and lost a mother to multiple sclerosis, a sister to liver cancer and a brother just last month to multiple myeloma.
Manion attended the first of two community forums led by Minnesota health and pollution officials to discuss efforts to detect and remove TCE, a degreasing solvent that had been dumped from 1947 to 1962 in a pit behind a now-defunct General Mills plant.
The state is asking some 200 property owners near Van Cleve Park to allow testing in their basements to determine whether TCE vapors in the soil below their foundations are finding a way into their homes.
Prolonged, substantial exposure to TCE has been linked to certain cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as birth defects.
While there is no evidence that cancer or other health problems are more prevalent in the neighborhood, state officials said they are acting out of caution as science has revealed more about the way TCE can evaporate from groundwater and rise through soils.
“We’re all hopeful [that] we’re going to conduct this investigation and we’re not going to see the types of exposures that will even require mitigation,” said Jim Kelly, manager of environmental surveillance and assessment for the Minnesota Department of Health.
The neighborhood’s TCE problem has been known since the early 1980s, when the old General Mills property at 2010 E. Hennepin Av. was declared a federal Superfund cleanup site.
General Mills agreed to pay for the pumping and treatment of groundwater to remove traces of the chemical.
Groundwater treatment continued until 2010, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency declared it was safe to halt the cleanup — but monitoring since that time found TCE in the soil gas below the surface.
Forty tests were conducted on the soil under sidewalks and streets in a wide section of the Como neighborhood near the old General Mills site. Thirteen sites showed TCE rates above residential air safety standards, allowing health officials to pinpoint a 16-block area trailing southwest from the plant to Van Cleve.
The history of cleanup efforts brought little comfort to residents, some of whom knew it and some of whom did not.
Maggie Dwyer of St. Anthony grew up in the neighborhood — in a house that now sits in the middle of the cleanup zone — and has since been treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer.
“This makes me really angry that nobody told my family about this,” she said at the afternoon meeting.
Tests and remedies
General Mills has agreed to arrange and pay for testing for TCE, at a cost of about $1,000 per property, as well as the $2,000-per-property cost of fixing homes or businesses if TCE is found. In most cases, the solution will be a ventilation system similar to the ones used in homes to remove radon.
The company previously paid to remove contaminated soil from the site of its former food and chemical research plant, which has since been sold and redeveloped into small-business offices.
To assess any potential health problems, the Health Department has reviewed data from its registries of all birth defects and cancer cases in the state. The 55414 ZIP code, which includes the Como neighborhood, does not have a higher rate of birth defects, Kelly said.
A review of the cancer database is ongoing, he added.
Tuesday’s forums brought dozens of neighbors from the immediate and surrounding areas — and their concerns.
Tenants of basement apartments worried about being at greater risk of TCE exposure. Owners worried about property values and pressed an official from General Mills about compensation. Neighbors of the test sites wondered whether their homes should be tested as well.
More than a dozen residents signed agreements to have their properties tested.
Manion, who now lives in Eden Prairie, is a retired public health nurse who knows that the ailments of her family could have been random bad luck. The discovery of the TCE contamination leaves her wondering, though.
“It could help me finally understand,” she said.