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Old Brainerd foundry Superfund site lead cleanup begins

Lead contamination in a south Brainerd neighborhood left by a foundry shut down nearly 35 years ago is slated for cleanup next month. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency intends to break ground June 15 at eight excavation sites around the inte...

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The areas marked by dotted lines are those the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency intends to excavate this summer to eliminate lead-contaminated soil. The solid line in the center of the map shows the outline of the original Brainerd Foundry building and the shaded area shows where soil was previously excavated nearly 20 years ago.

Lead contamination in a south Brainerd neighborhood left by a foundry shut down nearly 35 years ago is slated for cleanup next month.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency intends to break ground June 15 at eight excavation sites around the intersection of Quince and South 10th streets to remove soil laced with high concentrations of lead. The areas surround the site of the former Brainerd Foundry, where the the casting of bronze, brass and iron parts for the railroad industry caused heavy metals to spew from its smokestacks for 45 years.

About 20 people attended a community meeting hosted by the MPCA Tuesday night at the First Lutheran Church in Brainerd to learn about the upcoming cleanup. As part of the first phase of the $600,000 project, the agency plans to remove contaminated soil up to 4 feet deep from residents' yards and other property adjacent to the empty lot where the foundry once stood.

The foundry began operations at its South 10th Street location in 1925, although its history dates back to 1872, according to an article from the Brainerd Dispatch's 1971 centennial edition. One of its primary products was brass journal bearings used on the axles of railcars and its primary customer was Burlington Northern, although they also made products for the paper mill and other industrial customers.

The foundry operated until 1981. Over its lifetime, the MPCA estimates about 162,000 pounds of lead were emitted from its smokestacks. The emissions were greatly reduced in 1970, however, when clean air regulations required the addition of air filters to the stacks.

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The site has been on the agency's radar since 1983. In response to resident complaints, the MPCA investigated contamination from polychlorinated biphenyl, also known as PCB, two years after the business was abandoned. Since then, numerous investigations have revealed soil lead concentrations several times higher than those considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About 640 cubic yards of contaminated soil were removed from the site in 1996, although not any from surrounding properties.

The MPCA listed the foundry site on its Superfund priority list in 2010 and dedicated funding toward its cleanup this year. It joined five other Superfund sites in the Brainerd area, including the former city dump and the Burlington Northern shops.

Lead is toxic to humans and can cause behavior, learning and health problems in children along with high blood pressure, kidney damage and fertility problems in adults, the Minnesota Department of Health reports. Children are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning from ingesting sources of lead, including lead-based paint chips and contaminated soil.

Daniel Peña, MDH environmental research scientist, conducted a health assessment of the neighborhood in 2001. His findings noted non-industrial land use around the foundry site increased the likelihood of residential lead exposure. This includes Washington Middle School, where classes took place until 2004 and student programs continue to run.

"There is the potential for lead exposure via ingestion of contaminated soil and inhalation of contaminated dusts," Peña wrote. "These data do indicate the existence of children and adults with elevated blood lead in the vicinity. There is a vulnerable population that could be exposed to off-site soils."

Stephanie Yendell works with the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at MDH in St. Paul. Yendell told those in attendance she evaluated blood lead records from the last 20 years in Brainerd and found those living near the foundry site were at no greater risk than those living elsewhere in the city.

"The percentage of people that come up with high levels of lead was very similar in the area right around the foundry as it was in the rest of Brainerd," Yendell said. "There are sources of lead exposure in the area, but we can't say whether it's from one exposure or another."

Marlys Peterson and Raymond Comeau own one of the contaminated properties. Peterson, who purchased the home from her aunt, was aware the property was contaminated when she bought it but has concerns about whether the cleanup efforts will fully eliminate the problem.

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Her front yard, which contains some of the heaviest contamination in the area based on sampling, also has two large trees. The MPCA said they would not be removing any trees as part of their excavation efforts.

"It's beautiful and it provides wonderful shade, but in the long run I would prefer clean soil," Peterson said.

Doug Beckwith, MPCA site remediation supervisor based in Duluth, said the agency planned to avoid tree removal as a benefit to residents. Beckwith said they could talk about removing the trees in Peterson's yard but because of the use of state funds, could not make improvements to the property.

Although the foundry owners were found responsible for the pollution, they filed for bankruptcy in 1982, leaving the U.S. Economic Development Administration in possession of the land. The city of Brainerd now owns the land after the EDA gave it to them several years ago. State funds are used to remediate abandoned sites where the responsible party can no longer be assessed the costs.

Jennifer Jevnisek, project manager, said she is discussing with the contractor whether any landscaping will be included beyond replacing the dirt and reseeding the grass.

"We are managing state funds, yet we also acknowledge the fact that homeowners have a preference for how their lawn looks," Jevnisek said.

The first phase of the project is set for completion by July. The MPCA will treat the contaminated soil as hazardous waste, which will be deposited at the Crow Wing County Landfill.

Jevnisek said the agency is planning to implement the second phase of the project next year. The second phase will include wind modeling to determine whether there are additional sites at risk for high lead concentrations, more soil sampling and possible groundwater sampling.

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CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Jennifer Jevnisek of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency answers questions Tuesday about the upcoming excavations planned around the site of the former Brainerd Foundry. The site was listed as a Superfund site in 2010 due to high concentrations of lead in the soil. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch
Jennifer Jevnisek of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency answers questions Tuesday about the upcoming excavations planned around the site of the former Brainerd Foundry. The site was listed as a Superfund site in 2010 due to high concentrations of lead in the soil. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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