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Cass Lake Superfund site on Pruitt's radar: EPA head ranks site of former wood treatment plant as one that needs immediate action

BEMIDJI, Minn.--The Cass Lake Superfund site, once home to a wood treatment plant, is on the radar of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

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From the 1950s to the 1980s, this 125-acre site was home to a St. Regis Paper Co. facility. It is now a EPA Superfund Site because of potential hazardous substances and pollutants that could harm local ecosystems. (Submitted photo)
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BEMIDJI, Minn.-The Cass Lake Superfund site, once home to a wood treatment plant, is on the radar of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

In a recent press release from the EPA, the agency stated that it had developed a list of Superfund sites targeted for immediate, intense action, including the one in Cass Lake east of Bemidji. Superfund sites are those containing hazardous substances and pollutants that could harm local ecosystems.

According to Leslie Patterson, Cass Lake Site project manager, the new list means "the site was identified as one that would benefit from an increase in engagement from the administrator's office."

"We are making tremendous progress expediting sites through the entire Superfund remediation process," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the press release. "The updated emphasis list reflects our commitment to addressing Superfund sites as quickly and safely as possible."

The EPA, along with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have been involved with the Cass Lake site since the early 1980s. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the 125-acre site was home to a St. Regis Paper Co. facility.

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When in operation, the facility used creosote and other chemicals to treat wood. After the company ended its operation, the MPCA and Leech Lake officials identified contamination at various areas on the site.

The site as a whole is located just south of the Cass Lake train tracks and east of Aspen Avenue (State Highway 371), near Pike Bay. In 1995, the EPA became the lead agency on the site. Several soil samplings have since taken place.

The main contaminants of concern in the soil is dioxin, a pollutant in the chemical pentachlorphenol, used at the site in wood preservation.

After sampling the soil from 2004-06, the EPA removed 3,900 tons of contaminated soil from the site. However, additional soil sampling identified more pollutants and the need for additional work.

In 2016, the EPA introduced a proposal to excavate contaminated soil from residential properties on the site and backfill the area with clean dirt, along with planting new vegetation. In late summer 2016, a comment period took place to get feedback on the new proposal.

"It ran through the beginning of September and we did receive numerous comments, which we've been looking at. After we get the public comment and gather additional information, we will determine if we are going to issue a records of decision," Patterson said. "When a final remedy is formulated, it will be introduced in the records of decision. The EPA drafts the records of decision and shares it with our partners, in this case the state and the tribe."

Patterson said the records of decision hasn't been created for the Cass Lake site yet, but it will likely be drafted in the coming months.

"After the records of decision is signed, the EPA will negotiate an agreement with the responsible party to design and perform the remedy," Patterson said. "The negotiating can take several months, and the designing for the remedy can take up to a year. So, excavators won't show up to remove soil for a couple years."

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The responsible party in this case is International Paper Co., which was once Champion International Inc., the company that bought St. Regis Paper Co.

Because the current proposal only focuses on residential spaces on the site, though, Patterson said more work will remain after this project is completed.

"At the request of the tribe, we narrowed down the plan to the residential areas only," Patterson said. "We still have to address the commercial and industrial areas, but we decided to defer that and get the residential properties in the 'pipeline' and get it moving."

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

Related Topics: CASS LAKE
Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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