St. Paul officials plan this year to reopen a park trail and fossil site near a steep and hilly area where a landslide buried four children on a field trip nearly two years ago, killing two of them.
They made the decision after reviewing an independent geological study of the Brickyard area of Lilydale Regional Park on the city's West Side.
The study, presented Wednesday to the City Council, determined that while parts of the 50-acre tract are safer than others, unstable slopes and erosion ensure that no part of the area — near the eastern end of the 380-acre riverside park — is without some risk to visitors.
The Brickyard area, so named for brick-making that took place there for decades, has been closed to visitors since the tragedy as city officials weighed their next step.
Based on the study, Mike Hahm, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said, "We'll now be able to implement some specific actions that will enable us to safely reopen portions of the regional park as early as this summer."
Those actions include using signs and fences to restrict access to landslide-prone areas, mapping grid coordinates to quickly locate park visitors in trouble, and regularly monitoring park areas — especially after heavy rains.
If things go as expected, Hahm said the milelong Brickyard Trail down the bluff will open this summer, and school groups will be able to visit one of the area's four identified fossil sites by the fall.
For the foreseeable future, the rest of the Brickyard — including the site near the east clay pits where the children were killed and injured — will remain closed, Hahm said.
Hahm and Fire Chief Tim Butler discussed the main points with the council on Wednesday. Council Member Dan Bostrom wondered why it needed to be reopened in the first place.
"By putting up signs with locations and barricades and all that stuff, we're actually acknowledging that there are still potential hazards in that general area. … We've had significant lawsuits that have cost us over a million dollars and there's been a loss of life," Bostrom said.
"Why in the world are we going back and doing this again?"
Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the park area, countered that he's received plenty of inquiries about the site's reopening from school groups and hikers.
"I think it's probably worse to try to keep areas closed without doing the work that we're talking about, and then giving people a reason why they shouldn't be in some areas," Thune said.
"Getting those kinds of requests, I know people are going down there now anyway, and this is going to ensure their safety."
The immediate fixes are expected to cost the city about $450,000, of which $300,000 already has been set aside. City officials will seek the balance from the state's parks or Legacy funds.
A record settlement
The study, conducted by Barr Engineering Co. of Edina, was the third commissioned by St. Paul relating to the accident on May 22, 2013.
About 50 fourth-graders from Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park were exploring a fossil area when a waterlogged hillside collapsed, trapping several of them. Rescuers worked in waist-deep mud to dig the students out.
They found the body of 9-year-old Haysem Sani shortly after the landslide. Several hours later, they uncovered the body 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana.
St. Paul paid a record $1 million settlement to the families involved, and spent about $334,000 on three studies.
Two studies in 2013 cleared St. Paul of liability, concluding that city officials had recognized soil erosion in the park as an environmental threat but not as a risk to visitors.
The Barr study, commissioned last May, was intended to help city officials decide when and how they could reopen the area for public use.
The 287-page report had been expected earlier, but engineers were forced to start over after a landslide occurred last summer that was bigger than the one in May 2013.
Grading the dangerous areas would be expensive and rob the park of its natural features. Instead, Barr recommended that the high-risk areas be restricted, that slopes be stabilized where possible and that inspections be done on a continuing basis.
Jon Kerr, a park advocate who lives near Lilydale Park, said that a city-commissioned study in 2009 had listed "erosion" as a priority for the park but that nothing had been done about it. He added that a major culvert nearby had been unplugged shortly before the accident.
"It's good to have something open, but I just really hope that they're addressing everything very honestly," he said.