For nearly 30 years, the St. Regis Paper Company operated a wood treatment plant near downtown Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. At the time, no one realized the chemicals used to produce railroad ties and telephone poles were dangerous. The St. Regis plant was shut down in 1985. But harmful chemicals like dioxin and pentachlorophenol were left behind in the soil and groundwater.
People still live there. Iva LaDuke lives in a small trailer on a site once piled high with hundreds of chemically-treated logs. She's lived most of her 72 years in the neighborhood. LaDuke lives with several grandkids and their mother. She says she knows it's not a healthy place to live, but she doesn't have much choice.
"What are you going to do?" said LaDuke. "You can't pick up and move because you don't have the money to do it. And nobody is going to buy these houses over here, so you can't sell them."
The St. Regis property was sold to International Paper, which is now responsible for cleaning up the contamination. The EPA ordered International Paper to clean the interiors of neighborhood homes from top to bottom. LaDuke and her grandchildren spent a week in a local hotel while crews wearing protective clothing came to her home to replace her carpet, vacuum her heating ducts, and steam-clean her furniture.
LaDuke says the cleanup was probably a waste of time. She figures dust from the road in front of her house will creep back in this summer. And her grandkids will track in dirt from the neighborhood.
"They're always outside in the summertime," LaDuke said. "They play in the yard here, they play over in that field there. All the kids around here play outside in the summertime. In fact, right in the back of my house here, there's still some of those treated logs back there."
The reasons why our people are dying, I believe, comes directly from the Superfund site.Paula Valiant
The EPA has warned people to keep neighborhood kids from playing in the dirt outside. LaDuke says that's hard to do. She worries kids are bound to be exposed to contamination.
LaDuke is convinced people in her family have gotten sick from the chemicals. LaDuke comes from a family of 10 brothers and sisters. She says half of them died of cancer. Years ago, her six-year-old daughter died of a rare blood disease. The girl's father worked in the wood treatment plant. He died of stomach cancer in December.
The Minnesota Department of Health released a report last year that examines the community health concerns in Cass Lake. The report provides no clear answers. The state doesn't have a way of tracking most diseases. There are elevated levels of certain types of cancer in the Cass Lake area, but there's no way to definitively link those cancers to the contamination at St. Regis.
Paula Valiant is a member of Heal Our Mother Earth, a group that's worked closely with residents of the St. Regis neighborhood. Valiant says many people question whether the recent house-cleaning efforts were worth the trouble or the expense.
"Why didn't they use that money in a better fashion than hire somebody to come in with a moon suit and wipe your walls down, or maybe vacuum out your sofa?" said Valiant. "I think it's a waste of money. They should have used it to help those people in a real way."
Valiant says she believes the level of illness in the community isn't normal. Valiant grew up in the St. Regis neighborhood, as did many of her family members. She battled cancer a few years ago. In just the past six months, two of her aunts died of cancer. Valiant says many of the deaths she's seen over the years have been from uncommon diseases.
"I can give you at least a handful of people with Lupus that live here in Cass Lake right now," Valiant said. "And that's supposed to be a very rare disease. It's not. Stomach cancer. I could name five people right now with stomach cancer. I can name at least five people that have died of brain tumors in the last few years. So the things that are happening, the reasons why our people are dying, I believe, comes directly from the Superfund site."
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has been working to get the EPA and other agencies to do what's necessary to safeguard the community from the chemical hazards. Tribal Environmental Director Shirley Nordrum says the best solution is to relocate the entire neighborhood to another location. But Nordrum says not all neighborhood residents agree.
"They're divided," said Nordrum." Some say that they want to move. They want out of there, that the cleanup is inadequate. And others obviously don't want to move, may not have even had their homes cleaned up. But I know that they all feel that it was an extreme injustice that was done to them, just by not being told from the very get-go that there were problems there."
EPA officials say moving people out of the neighborhood is an option that may be considered when a final cleanup plan is developed later this year. But relocation is probably a last resort. The agency estimates relocation would cost close to $2.5 million. Meanwhile, the City of Cass Lake is exploring the possibility of acquiring a 37-acre site currently owned by the U.S. Forest Service. City officials and some federal lawmakers want the EPA to buy out St. Regis homeowners so they can move to the new site.
Nordrum is frustrated with the whole process. She wishes the responsible party, International Paper, would just do what's necessary to clean the mess up. Nordrum says the clean-up has gone on for decades, yet people are still at risk.
"I mean, if something was done wrong, it just seems so simple to go back and fix it," she said. "But the way the law is written, people can spend millions of dollars fighting doing the right thing."
International Paper didn't pollute the site. But it became responsible for cleaning it up when it acquired the property in 2000. Since then, the company has spent more than $10 million on cleanup efforts.
Company spokesman Dave Kluesner says International Paper has followed the letter of the law.
"We have done everything that's been asked of us," said Kluesner. "We've been very cooperative, and we will see this through to the end."
Over the past two years, International Paper, under orders from the EPA, removed thousands of tons of toxic topsoil from the 125-acre site. The company collected additional soil and groundwater samples. They also tested fish, sediments and surface water in nearby Pike Bay and Cass Lake. That information is now being used to develop a human health risk assessment.
EPA project manager Tim Drexler says the recent house cleanings in the neighborhood are intended to be only a short term measure to reduce exposure risks. Drexler says people are understandably frustrated with the process. But he says the EPA is doing what it can to reach some final clean-up solution.
"I think that by and large people are happy that we're as engaged in the process as we are, and that we're applying effort to it," said Drexler. "Certainly, when you go into people's homes like we have over the course of this last month, you get to learn people's patience levels. And they've been very patient and very accommodating for us to do this work, because it's a disruption in their lives and it's through no fault of their own."
This spring, neighborhood homeowners will get a clean layer of dirt dumped in their yards to cover contaminated soil. And there will be more free house-cleaning available every few months for those who want it.