James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Pure spring-water poses a health quandary in Eden Prairie

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: March 2, 2015 - 5:41 PM

I wrote Sunday about a fascinating place in Minnesota: the Fredrick-Miller Spring, spouting from a pipe on the edge of a patch of woodlands in Eden Prairie. It's one of two natural springs preserved in the city: the other is further west, in the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area.

For the story, the city provided me with a water test result from January that shows the absence of any coliform bacteria and a nitrate level of 2.1 milligrams per liter, or about one-fifth of the legal level in drinking water. One reader pointed out that the level, since it's well above zero, might indicate the presence of other contaminants that aren't being tested. That's up to the water drinkers to find out, if they're interested. Meanwhile, the city says it has no record of anyone ever getting sick from the spring. 


The dead letter office endures in the digital age

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: February 23, 2015 - 11:55 AM

My Sunday column described the contrast between the government's lawful ability to snoop in our email, and how hard the government makes it for us to read its email. It also provided me an opportunity to write about the dead letter office, old and new. 

In Herman Melville's classic 1853 story "Bartleby the Scrivener," we learn (spoiler alert!) that it was the title character's previous job in the dead letter office that plunged him into existential despair. 

Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

These days, dead letters are shredded, not burned. The St. Paul "mail recovery center," seen above in 1992 in a Star Tribune photo by Charles Bjorgen, was once the recipient of 13 million orphan letters each year. "Blood, urine samples, stool samples, body parts, pornography - we get everything," Greg Hawthorne, supervisor of the undeliverable-mails unit, told my (now retired) colleague Bill McAuliffe in February 1992. Our local dead letter office closed in 2009, and I couldn't find any announcement or news story about it. The last one operates in Atlanta. Indeed, if someone mails a wedding ring or anything of apparent value, the post office hangs onto it. Otherwise, if their sleuths cannot determine the recipient, the letter is obliterated.

Dead emails don't have the same resonance as Melville's dead letters, since most of them were likely pitches for organ enlargement and mythical windfalls from the widows of foreign dictators. I'd like to think that at least a few of them were heartfelt communications that attempted to bridge the yawning chasm of alienation. The only eyes likely to see them, though, are those looking for malevolence.

P.S. Fittingly, the post office's URL for the mail recovery office is a dead link.

Fewer unruly passengers reported, but some say skies aren't friendlier

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: February 19, 2015 - 5:47 PM

It sounds like good news: The Federal Aviation Administration reports that its tally of unruly passenger incidents in 2014 was the lowest in 20 years. A mere 121 incidents were reported, compared to 310 as recently as 2004. But the New York Times takes issue with the number, on the basis of anecdotal evidenced, not to mention in-flight videos of nasty behavior captured by fellow passengers and broadcast to the world. 

Last month I wrote about the high price of bad behavior on board. The FAA handed out 20 fines of $10,000 or more from 2010 through September 2014 to passengers who attacked flight crew members or other passengers, got wildly drunk and disruptive or otherwise caused a major ruckus. Is the get-tough policy making potential trouble-makers think twice? We can only hope. 

Vintage map of the mound complex near Lake Minnetonka

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: February 16, 2015 - 11:58 AM

My Sunday column described the disturbance of an Indian mound at the east end of Lake Minnetonka, despite the area having been mapped as an archaeological site as early as 1883. Below is a map of the so-called Shaver Mounds included in a 1911 book, the Aborigines of Minnesota, digitized in Google Books and, as a pre-1922 work, in the public domain. Virtually all of the marked features in this map have been destroyed over the years. 

Correction: In the print version of my column, and early digital versions, a photo by the Office of the State Archaeologist of a geomorphologist on the site in 2010 was incorrectly credited to me.  

So much for Utopia: U lowers its sights for UMore Park

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: February 13, 2015 - 3:04 PM

Last summer I wrote about my skepticism that a Utopian community could be built on gravel pits, as the University of Minnesota promised for its giant UMore Park tract in Dakota County. I wasn't the only doubter. The U has now officially abandoned its ambitions for a model eco-friendly community, my colleague Emma Nelson reports. The U has already spent $3.5 million more planning the development of UMore Park than it has earned from grants and other revenue, although it does expect the gravel to pay big money for decades.

While U President Eric Kaler can dismiss the U's smart-growth vision as the pipe dream of his predecessor, Bob Bruininks, it's clear that the project always had internal contradictions: A university acting as a residential real estate developer; an urban campus planning an exurban community that exemplifies smart growth; and most of all, an academic mission supported directly by resource extraction. 

The University of Minnesota has taken a step back to the reality-based world. It will now be up to the market to decide whether fish will frolic in a water-filled former gravel pit, to the delight of homeowners in the green houses sprouting all around it.


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