These days, Bernie and Sue Brown feel like they’re trapped in their own home, at the mercy of what’s hidden in the basement walls.

When the family bought the White Bear Lake property in 1993, the foundation came riddled with old car battery casings that had been emptied and used as fill material. The bizarre material peeks through worn spots of their poured foundation and is easy to spot in their outdoor retaining walls, an unnerving relic of construction choices made when the lakeshore home was built in 1939.

In all, they estimate about 1,000 old casings are embedded throughout their property.

The couple say they’re trapped in a home no buyer would touch, grappling with lead pollution concerns they can’t afford to clean up.

“We are literally prisoners in this house,” Sue Brown said. “We are on a toxic dump.”

It’s a situation that’s also baffling to state health and pollution officials.

“We’ve never come across this kind of scenario before,” said Dan Locher, supervisor of the asbestos and lead compliance program at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Bernie Brown, a 70-year-old veteran and retired collectibles dealer, has sunk about $200,000 into renovations over the years, sprucing up the land and overhauling the old home on the shore of Birch Lake.

Now he worries those years and dollars have been wasted, unaware until recently that the casings — though empty — may pose health risks from lead exposure. Brown believes all his basement remodeling work is connected to his esophageal cancer diagnosis in 2012, especially after his oncologist alerted him to two studies about lead exposure.

The Browns say they’re scrambling for options, unable to sell the property in its current state but needing help to rid the site of the casings.

The couple has turned to the city and state agencies for help. But so far, a path forward remains murky. They still owe a hefty mortgage on the property and fear bankruptcy should they be unable to find a solution.

“If we walk away, it totally wipes us out,” Bernie Brown said. “We’re stuck.”

Search for answers

Brown said he paid $70,000 for the dilapidated home in 1993, knowing it had potential given its sweeping views of Birch Lake and coveted expanse of shoreline.

But it came with obvious signs of disrepair: boarded-up windows. A roof with seven layers of shingles. A shaky bathroom floor. During landscaping, the family unearthed a buried dishwasher and rolls of shag carpet.

“It was a disaster,” he said.

Brown did as much of the work himself as he could. He had spotted the battery casings in the foundation of the basement when he moved in. What he didn’t realize was that the hollow cases could be a health hazard, even emptied of the batteries, he said.

Brown said it wasn’t until last year that he found out about the lead risk, after attempts to sell their home led him to City Hall.

There, a city employee showed him a thick file on his property, including a 1994 Pioneer Press story that mentioned the odd foundation. The article described it as a “serious pollution problem.”

Brown said it was the first he had heard of casings being contaminated with lead. Given the city’s file on their home, the Browns wonder if White Bear Lake officials have known about the property’s situation for years.

It’s a concern the city is looking into, City Manager Ellen Richter said.

“We don’t believe we have any liability,” she said, “but we want to do what we can to help them navigate this.”

Over the past year, the Browns have worked to alert the appropriate agencies as they sound the alarm to other homeowners who may have old, poured foundations.

They’ve reached out to Ramsey County, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Environmental Protection Agency. But so far, their search for financial assistance with cleanup has come up empty.

Pollution officials agree the situation is unusual, though chopped-up battery casings have also been found in Dakota County septic systems from the 1960s to 1980s.

Disturbing the old casings

The MPCA says there aren’t any state programs that the Browns’ property would qualify for to clean it up. Plus, as long as the material is encased, the property is considered safe, said Walker Smith, an MPCA spokesman.

The Department of Health told the Browns much the same after a basic screening of the property last summer. A few samples uncovered some lead contamination, but the precise health risks remain unclear without more testing, health officials say.

Locher said the best thing the Browns can do is repair the basement wall to re-encase any exposed casings.

The problem would arise should the casings be disturbed during a major remodel or teardown, which the Browns expect any buyer would want to do. Most people are more interested in the lakeshore lot than the old house.

The estimated market value of their home was $275,000 for 2018. But they worry the contamination will make the value plummet.

The Browns say they can’t in good conscience pass the problem off to someone else. It’s why they’re now pursuing estimates to tear down the house and dispose of the casings. But the problem remains: how to pay for it.

“We want the buck to now stop here,” Sue Brown said. “But we are at a point where we don’t know who to go to for help.”