Health Officials Warn SE Mpls. Residents of Dangerous Soil Vapors

Updated: 11/12/2013 8:50 AM By: Leslie Dyste

Investigation into TCE soil vapor in the Como neighborhood of Minneapolis
Investigation into TCE soil vapor in the Como neighborhood of Minneapolis
Photo: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

It's a dangerous, cancer-causing chemical. And on Thursday, the state warned hundreds of people living in one Minneapolis neighborhood that that chemical could be seeping into their basements, and the air they breathe.

It's a typically quiet neighborhood full of homeowners, as well as renters and a lot of students. On Wednesday, state officials sent letters to everyone who lives there, saying chemical vapors coming up through the soil could end up inside their homes.

"I bought this house in 1969," said one longtime resident, who didn't want to be identified.

He said the neighbors have changed.

"Over the years, they all started passing away," he said. "A guy and his wife, they both died of cancer. A couple doors down from them, they both died of cancer. My wife's got cancer."

They all lived in the shadow of what is now a Superfund site.

"We never thought nothing of it," the neighbor said.

General Mills used to conduct research there, and dumped nasty chemicals into the ground. One was trichloroethylene, or TCE, a cleaning solvent and degreaser. The danger wasn't discovered until 1981, and it took nearly three decades to largely decontaminate the groundwater.

But the threat remains.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this stuff is leeching in the soil," the neighbor said.

That's what state officials confirmed on Thursday. Testing has revealed contaminated water is evaporating underground, releasing toxic, chemical vapors.

"We know the contamination is in the vapor underground. Is it getting into the home? That's the question we need to answer," said Hans Neve, a supervisor in the Remediation Division of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The state has sent letters to about 200 homes, asking permission to test inside.

"The solution is not technically a complicated problem, but to make this go, to gain any ground, we need the help of the public," Neve said.

"I'd probably let them come in. I'd like to know what the hell's going on," the neighbor said.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked state officials how concerned residents in the neighborhood should be. They said they just won't know until they're able to get inside homes for testing.

For residents who have questions, the state is holding open houses on Tuesday at the Van Cleve Recreation Center at 901 15th Avenue SE in Minneapolis. They will be held from 12:30-3:00 p.m. and 5:00-7:30 p.m.

The fix is fairly easy -- a ventilation system that would be paid for by General Mills.

Experts say TCE can have the most serious impacts on unborn children, infants, and people with weakened immune systems. State officials said they're especially concerned about the risk of heart defects in developing fetuses.

Click here to view the full map of the risk areas within the neighborhood. The areas highlighted in blue are at risk of coming in contact with TCE.