Ford completes environmental investigation on former St. Paul plant site

Demolition begins at the Ford plant in St. Paul
Ford says it has completed an environmental investigation at its former St. Paul assembly plant site and that cleanup can begin. Pictured, demolition work on June 10, 2013.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2013

Nearly five years after the last Ford Ranger rolled off the assembly line in St. Paul, the car company says it now knows what a century of car building left on the site. Ford told a meeting of neighbors Thursday night that it has completed an environmental investigation and the cleanup can begin.

It's taken a long time to get here. Ford announced it would shut down its St. Paul plant 10 years ago. It closed in December 2011. Almost half the time since then has been devoted to an investigation of possible pollution on the site.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hydrogeologist Amy Hadiaris told more than 100 people in Highland Park Thursday night that the results are in.

"We've still got a couple of other reports coming in, but things are looking pretty good," she said. "And certainly a site that can be cleaned up and put to whatever use the community and the city wants to see happen."

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It isn't perfect. She said there are dozens of areas of scattered contamination. The soil under the former employee parking lot has a lot of hydrocarbon contamination.

And then there's the dump out back, on the south end of the site. Hadiaris said it dates back to the 1920s, and was likely used until World War II.

"That's an area where, back in the day wastes were disposed of directly in the ground, maybe burned, buried," she said. "And so that represents an area where there's that hydrocarbon, solvent contamination and also some heavy metals, specifically lead is the main one."

The former Ford plant dump site, foreground.
Before hazardous waste laws existed, Ford dumped paint waste and other material at the site in the foreground, which is adjacent to the former assembly plant. Photo used with the permission of the Metropolitan Design Center.
©Regents of the University of Minnesota

Rob Cory, director of global real estate services for Ford, said the automaker has decided to clean up the mess itself, rather than sell to a developer to fix. And company officials said they've already started digging up the dirty soil and hauling it away for appropriate disposal.

"We expect, based on what we know today, that the majority of the site will be available for the types of things the city has been talking about for a number of years, which is mainly that mixed use development where you have some retail, you have some office, you have some residential," he said. "Maybe you've got multi-family with retail on the first floor."

That will open the door to a swath of open land about half the size of downtown St. Paul, among the most prime real estate in the Twin Cities.

Chris Tolbert represents the area on the St. Paul City Council.

"I've had a hard time finding sites not only in the Twin Cities or Minnesota or around the country that would be comparable to the potential of this site," Tolbert said. "It's on the banks of the Mississippi River. It's equidistant between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis, it's minutes from the airport, and it's in a premier neighborhood that people want to be in."

He said the environmental study is a milestone that finally clears away years of doubt and makes way for zoning changes, street and open space planning. It also calls for a hard look at transportation.

Neighbors are already complaining about traffic in the area, and fear hundreds of new residents could only make it worse. Tolbert said a clean site will make planning for a transit line along West Seventh Street, including a potential rail line, even more critical.

Ronnie Brooks lives nearby and has been on a task force pondering the Ford site's future for almost a decade. Brooks said the fears of what might be lurking down the block may finally be lifting.

"What I heard tonight, and of course, we need to learn more, is that there's not a problem that we couldn't solve, and that Ford wants to see, for its own protection and for ours, that the cleanup is done well. So that's kind of reassuring to me."

But others said there's plenty left to worry about. While some were concerned about traffic and density on the site, others said they're worried plans for parkland and transit and other amenities will squander a chance to build the city's property tax base.

Gene Sonnen lives just up Cleveland Avenue from the site and wants value out of a future development.

"So we need tax relief in St. Paul. We don't need no more green space," he said.

Still, it'll be a while before anything takes shape. Ford said the cleanup will likely take until at least 2019.