St. Regis Superfund site: EPA eyes final solution

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached agreement with International Paper and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. on developing options to permanently reduce health risks at the St. Regis Superfund site.

Superfund meeting
At right, Milton Clark, health and science adviser with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, addresses a question Thursday night during a public meeting on the St. Regis Superfund site in Cass Lake. At left is Don de Blasio, community involvement coordinator with the EPA. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached agreement with International Paper and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. on developing options to permanently reduce health risks at the St. Regis Superfund site.

About 20 residents listened to an update on the process Thursday night at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School. EPA Remedial Project Manager Tim Drexler led the public meeting.

The EPA signed a consent order Sept. 11 with the two companies to conduct a feasibility study that will result in a report evaluating cleanup options for the site of the former St. Regis Paper Co., a wood treatment plant that operated from 1958-84, and affected adjacent areas. The city of Cass Lake and Cass Forest Products will not participate in the study.

IP and BNSF will produce a series of documents for review by the EPA and its support agency partners, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. After the EPA approves the feasibility study report, it will conduct a public hearing, expected to take place in November 2009, to present cleanup options and the EPA's recommended option. Citizens will be able to make comments at the public hearing and within 30 days thereafter.

After a period of review and comment, the EPA will make a final cleanup choice and develop plans to carry out its decision. Drexler said Wednesday night that the EPA expects to complete its record of decision in 2009, with remedial actions to begin in 2010.


Waiting for action

St. Regis was listed on the National Priorities List in 1984, making it eligible for cleanup under the EPA's Superfund program. The site was initially cleaned up by its former owner, Champion International. IP is the current property owner and continues to treat groundwater from the site.

The St. Regis Superfund site has four sections:

E The northwest portion of the former operations area.

E The southwest operations area and location of an on-site vault.

E The former Cass Lake dump that accepted site waste.

E The residential area surrounding the site.

Cass Lake Mayor Wayne LaDuke asked, "Does it normally take 20 years?"


"These take time," Drexler said. "They can take time to clean up."

The Superfund label has been hurting Cass Lake for a long time, LaDuke said. Along with health and environmental concerns for residents, property values and tourism are also affected.

"I was born and raised on the south side," said LaDuke, who later moved away. He returned when he retired in 1996.

"The Superfund site is not a good thing for any community," he said. "My main concern is that it gets cleaned up. ... I would like to see it get behind us."

John Stevens of Ames, Iowa, owns a cabin on nearby Pike Bay, which is not within the St. Regis Superfund site, but is close enough that his children and grandchildren do not want to spend time on the lake, which has prompted him to want to sell his property.

"I drove up from Ames to hear this meeting," said Stevens, who first visited the area as a teenager in the 1950s.

His father built a cabin on Pike Bay around the time the St. Regis Paper Co. began operations in 1958.

"I took over the cabin next door to him in 1985," Stevens said. "I love these people up and down the lake."


Stevens questions whether he will be able to sell his property. Although he believes Pike Bay to be safe, he feels a duty to inform a prospective buyer, who may have concerns, of the nearby Superfund site.

"Will I ever be able to sell my cottage?" he asked.

"If I had a piece of property on the lake, I would not be concerned about potential health risks," said Milton Clark, health and science adviser with the EPA. "This is an awfully good, pristine lake."

"I couldn't agree more," Stevens said.

Rita Messing, toxicologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, and Clark both said they feel that Stevens has no obligation to disclose the Superfund information to a potential buyer, since Pike Bay is not part of the site, but Stevens' concerns are ethical as well as legal.

"I worry about when I die at the age of 75 or 76, looking God in the eye," he said.

Moving ahead

The human health portion of the site risk assessment is complete. The EPA modified and then approved IP's document Aug. 15. From this assessment, the EPA determined that risks still exist at the site to people and the environment. The feasibility study will present and evaluate cleanup options to address those risks.


Immediate risks to nearby residents from high levels of chemicals such as dioxin have been reduced by applying clean dirt to yards, providing periodic housecleaning and applying a dust suppressant on nearby unpaved roads, but these were only temporary measures. The feasibility study must present permanent options.

Ecological risks also remain. The ecological portion of the risk assessment is not yet complete. IP conducted additional sediment sampling in September and October under the oversight of the EPA and the Leech Lake Band. A 28-day test of the samples is being conducted to determine the risk of the sediments to animals. Results will be used to finalize the ecological portion of the risk assessment and develop feasibility study options.

IP continues to study contaminated groundwater plumes, with oversight by EPA and its partners. The plume near the former Cass Lake dump site is being evaluated to ensure that groundwater extraction wells are capturing all the contamination. In addition, a comprehensive study of the groundwater near the Leech Lake Band drinking water wells is planned for late this year or early next year.

More information is available at Cass Lake Library, Leech Lake Tribal College, the Bemidji State University library and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Division of Resource Management. Documents are also online at

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