Ford Motor Co. officials announced on Friday that environmental concerns forced the automaker to close three youth baseball fields in St. Paul where major leaguers such as Jack Morris, Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer once played and hundreds of children and their families have gathered for more than a half-century.
Andy Hobbs, director of Ford's environmental quality office, said preliminary results show that arsenic, copper and iron concentrations in a handful of samples of the underlying soil at the fields adjacent to the Ford Ranger plant are slightly above state standards allowed for recreational use.
State health officials hadn't seen all data yet, but said the arsenic concentrations described by Ford don't seem to indicate any danger.
"The approach that Ford is taking seems to be very reasonable and very cautious," said Tannie Eshenaur, community health educator for the Minnesota Department of Health.
More soil tests from the area need to be done, and the company has closed the area on Cleveland Avenue as a precaution, Hobbs said.
"We have no reason to believe that the condition of this field poses a community health risk," he said.
The company's announcement sent baseball officials scrambling, since their five-week fall season is scheduled to open next weekend.
Highland Little League President Elliott Knetsch said that the city may be able to accommodate the upcoming Sunday doubleheaders on fields at the nearby Hillcrest Recreation Center.
However, Knetsch said that there's a lack of recreation areas in the city, especially in the summer, and he's worried about losing the Little League fields.
"We've got three beautiful ball fields that are irreplaceable," he said. "Everyone loves those fields. They're 50 years old, and they're nostalgic."
Knetsch said that the area is the heart of St. Paul baseball, and its rich tradition includes generations of players who grew up to coach their own sons and daughters. Three Little League programs run by the nonprofit group include 750 boys and girls from ages 8 to 18, Knetsch said, involving 60 summer teams and more than 500 families.
"It's a very special place," said Pat Harris, the City Council member who represents the ward where the baseball diamonds are located. "There are many of us who believe it needs to be preserved, and we want to be make sure that Ford cleans it up entirely."
Ford officials discovered the metals while conducting a larger environmental assessment of the 138-acre site, where a plant was built in 1923 and which was used in recent years to assemble Ranger trucks. Ford plans to close the plant next year and is in the second phase of identifying areas that may be polluted and may need to be cleaned up before the property can be sold and redeveloped.
A federal report more than two decades ago mentioned the baseball diamonds as a place where battery casings may have been buried, but Hobbs said there has been no evidence of that so far in soil testing.
Arsenic is main concern
Of the metals found in the preliminary results, arsenic is the main concern.
Four of eight soil borings taken to a depth of 6 feet found arsenic concentrations above the state standard of 5 parts per million, he said. The highest at 16.4 parts per million was found in topsoil just beneath the grass, said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley.
Those levels are much less than the arsenic left in soil in south Minneapolis by a long-closed pesticide plant. Cleanup is underway there now.
Eshenaur from the Health Department said that the main concern with arsenic is whether young children play in contaminated soil and eat it, but risks are far lower if the soil is under turf or if youngsters are exposed to very small amounts of it by inhaling dust.
"Just because a pollutant or element is present doesn't mean that people will come into contact with it or that people are going to get sick," Eshenaur said. However, the company is acting prudently to take more samples to see if the arsenic concentrations are higher elsewhere on the ball fields, she said.
Hobbs said that Ford's consultant has taken about 70 soil borings from different sections of its property and will report on those results in the future. He expects many of them to reveal the "typical cocktail of contaminants" such as metals and waste solvents that have been found at other Ford plants shutting down across the country.
Hobbs said that he understands the importance of the Little League fields to the community, but that it's too early to say whether they will reopen or need to be relocated elsewhere on the property.
"We're going to work with the community to see what makes sense, but I don't want to commit right now," he said.
Tom Meersman 612-673-7388