During the more than 10 years it's taken to come up with an acceptable redevelopment plan for the 122-acre site of St. Paul's former Ford assembly plant, Area C remained an afterthought.

After all, the 22-acre former dump site wasn't part of the deal Ford and the city made with Ryan Cos. to remake the site into a modern, mixed-use urban village. It still isn't.

But now that Ryan's plans for 40 new city blocks in Highland Park are moving ahead, state and local interest in Area C's future is growing.

On Thursday, state, local and regional officials hosted the first of two neighborhood public meetings to discuss what should be done with Area C. For decades, unknown quantities of paint, sludge and solvents were buried on the site next to the Mississippi River. Neighbors and officials hope intensified study and monitoring over the next couple of years will help forge a plan to safely deal with it.

"We feel it's critical to get as best a picture as we can of what's there," said Bob Fossum, Monitoring and Research Division manager for the Capitol Region Watershed District.

Only after having a better idea of what may be lurking underground can state and local officials assess what the true risks are to public health and safety, he said.

And only after collecting adequate data about the risks will officials be able to fully develop a feasibility plan to make the site safe, officials said. Such a plan could range from doing nothing — if the risk from the site is deemed low — to removing soils from the area and disposing of them.

When it comes to digging more deeply into Area C, Thursday's meeting was just a preview of things to come. Hosted by state Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, the meeting was also held to talk about other river-related issues such as a planned new visitor center for the National Park Service and other ways St. Paul officials want to reconnect with the Mississippi.

A second meeting set for 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul will provide a more detailed overview of Area C's history, its current condition and future options. Friends of the Mississippi River and the Capitol Region Watershed District are also expected to participate in that meeting, which will be hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, has said he's concerned that an "enormous" quantity of toxic waste is buried at the site, and the group has been pushing for additional study.

According to the MPCA, Ford disposed of paint sludge and solvents used in automobile painting operations at the base of the bluff near Hidden Falls Park from 1945 until the mid-1960s, and "it appears that liquid solvents may have been dumped over the edge of the bluff, while barrels of paint sludge were buried."

The MPCA said disposal of industrial waste at Area C stopped in about 1966, although Ford also disposed of construction rubble, contaminated soil, scrap metal and other debris there. There are groundwater monitoring wells at the site and monitoring is ongoing, Clark said.

But Friends of the Mississippi River and other groups want more extensive testing done in additional areas — as well as testing for additional toxic chemicals in the ground­water.

"We need to make sure that Ford and the MPCA properly investigate the site so we can properly determine the impact on health and safety," Clark said. "We don't think the investigation to date has been as thorough as it should be."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428