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Meryl Miller had lined up friends and neighbors for the rescue mission. The 89-year-old award-winning gardener was worried that workers in hard hats would bulldoze her prized flowers as they removed arsenic-contaminated soil from her yard on 21st Avenue S. and Minnehaha Avenue.
She was poised to dig them all up, but it wasn't necessary after all.
Recent testing showed that her flower beds, bursting with multicolored zinnias, salvia, hosta, phlox, mums and lilies, had clean soil and would be spared.
Not so for her plush lawn.
Workers on Tuesday afternoon maneuvered a small Bobcat loader and backhoe to strip away the grass and a foot of soil beneath it.
"It's terrific that they're getting this done," said Miller, dodging an orange plastic safety fence and beaming smiles at the workers.
Miller has lived in the house since 1952 and first learned that her yard was contaminated about two years ago.
"I was just shocked when I found out about it," she said. "I've raised three boys here, and nobody's ever been sick."
Arsenic is known to cause health problems ranging from cancer to cardiovascular and nerve problems.
500 yards to go
The lawn around Miller's house is the first of nearly 500 yards in south Minneapolis that will have their lawns, soil and landscaping scraped away and restored between now and the end of 2011.
It's the second phase of a Superfund cleanup project and has been fast-tracked to use up to $25 million in federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The problem is arsenic in several neighborhoods near 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, where a former company received, mixed and stored pesticides along the rail line from 1938 to 1968. Arsenic was a common pesticide ingredient, and is thought to have blown into nearby neighborhoods.
Jim Prendiville, remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency tested 3,500 residential properties within a three-quarter mile radius of the former plant, and about 20 percent of them were contaminated. "It's really like a checkerboard," he said, with some homes showing high levels of contamination and others on the same block showing little or none.
Contractors cleaned up 197 yards with the highest levels of arsenic -- above 95 parts per million -- between 2004 and 2008. The current phase will take care of yards with arsenic levels from 25 to 94 parts per million. Concentrations below that are considered to be natural background levels that are harmless.
Prendiville said the agency is confident that it does not need to test other homes farther away from the former pesticide plant. He said that homeowners who have agreed to cleanups are off the hook as far as costs, and that the contaminated soil will be trucked to a licensed landfill for burial. Contractors will then deliver clean soil, he said, and restore whatever landscaping was removed or disturbed.
Issue is long-term exposure
Dan Peña, environmental research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said that the soil excavation does not pose any immediate health threats to residents or cleanup workers. The main concern, he said, is long-term exposure to residual arsenic in the soil. "Mainly we're concerned about young children," said Peña, because they play in the dirt and may ingest the arsenic. "It accumulates over a lifetime," he said.
Prendiville said cleanups during the next two months are targeted in the Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods, where residents may see construction vehicles and workers in protective equipment.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388