In the year since a waterlogged cliff in Lilydale Regional Park collapsed with a group of students on it, killing two and injuring two others, St. Paul has paid a record $1 million settlement to the families involved and spent nearly $200,000 on studies to analyze what happened.
Now as relatives, friends and classmates move past the tragedy’s anniversary, the city is spending another $152,000 to conduct a geological and engineering study of the area where the fourth-graders from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park were killed while looking for fossils.
“We’re trying to be thorough and we’re trying to be expeditious,” said Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm. “Both the entire park and the fossil grounds are important natural resources.”
More than a year after Mohamed Fofana and Haysem Sani were killed there on May 22, 2013, the future of the steep Mississippi River bluff area in the 384-acre park — still cordoned off by fencing and concrete barricades — remains unclear.
But city officials said they hope the most recent study, contracted last month with Barr Engineering Co., will guide them in deciding when and how they can reopen the 50-acre fossil grounds for public use.
Results could be available in July and decisions could be made by fall, Hahm said. Possible measures could include signage at the fossil grounds entrance, he said.
“Until we see the outcomes of the engineering reports, it’s premature at this point to speculate on what would be prudent for management of that area,” Hahm said.
Authorities said the students were hiking when a wet hillside of mud, sand and gravel gave way and sent them tumbling about 30 feet into the east clay pit.
Two studies done last year cleared St. Paul of liability but ran over budget, according to city documents. This third study could bring the total cost of reports the city has commissioned in the aftermath of the landslide to about $334,000.
“This was obviously a very tragic accident, and we needed to do a full investigation of what happened,” Hahm said of the studies.
Deciding to reopen
A city contract last July with law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis limited expenses to $85,000, but wound up costing St. Paul $136,494 due to payments to a vendor for e-mail and data retrieval, an invoice said.
The law firm, charged with reviewing the city’s internal processes and communications, concluded that St. Paul officials knew soil erosion was an environmental threat, but could not know it was a risk to visitors.
A contract between the city and Northern Technologies Inc. last June estimated costs and fees at $39,950, but the bill ended up costing $45,845. Northern Technologies, a civil engineering firm that investigated the cause of the collapse, also cleared the city of liability.
Despite the higher than expected costs, City Council Member Dave Thune, whose ward includes the park, defended the expense, saying “I think we’ve obviously learned a great deal about the park. Regardless of what the costs are, we have to maintain a safe city and safe natural grounds. We’re not going to cut corners.”
Jon Kerr, a city resident and park advocate, believes the city could be more transparent.
After the landslide, Hahm said the event was “unprecedented,” adding that city officials weren’t aware of any recent landslides. But, Kerr noted, the city was made aware of a 2011 landslide that was documented by citizens.
“Rather than learn from and positively react from this tragedy, the city has tried to spin and restrict public information,” he said.
City officials said they could not discuss the landslide or lessons learned from the experience due to pending litigation with student Lucas Lee, who sprained his ankle in the incident.
The city settled in March for $1 million with the families of Fofana, 10; Sani, 9; and Devin Meldahl. Meldahl was buried waist-deep for 45 minutes before he was rescued with serious injuries. St. Louis Park schools settled with the Fofana, Sani and Meldahl families for $200,000.
The fossil grounds, located in clay pits, were exposed after decades of man-made activity on the site by the Twin Cities Brick Co. The bluffs were carved out, exposing fossils and creating some of the park’s sheerest drops.
The east clay pit, where the landslide occurred, is a horseshoe-shaped area that had a 30- to 40-foot earthen wall and was once the site of a large kiln.
In 2008, St. Paul hired an engineering firm to study what it would take to develop and maintain the park. The study, which was contracted for $54,076 and wound up costing nearly five times as much, outlined several issues, including erosion at the clay pits.
Erosion “along the walls of the former clay pits should be evaluated and prioritized for stabilization,” read the Bonestroo report, issued in 2009.
City officials declined to spend an estimated $11,000 to $15,000 to study erosion, while costlier projects were pushed through in other areas of the park, including extensive paving of roadways, bike trails and parking lots. They have said the Bonestroo study did not specifically cite the east clay pit, one of three in the park.
In 2012, forestry supervisor Scott Kruse spotted erosion while inspecting ice climbing conditions in the clay pits. He sent an e-mail to the parks and recreation operations manager saying that erosion was a problem in the “main area for fossil hunting.”
“Notice the top edge of the photos where the ice meets the embankment, the embankment is actually hanging over the ice much like a carpet sliding off the edge of a stair,” Kruse wrote. “The overhang has trees connected to it, these will all slide off in the next year or two, I believe the whole hillside is at high risk to slide away in heavy rains.”
The city’s priorities in the face of consultant, employee and public input upsets park advocates such as Kerr, who said that he and others have repeatedly tried to draw attention to erosion.
“If some physical improvements or restrictions are needed, they should be fashioned in a transparent manner with true public input,” Kerr said. “But it all has to start, as it should have years ago, with city and parks leaders being willing to openly confront the problem. That is an investment that should never wait until a tragedy happens.”