Cleanup at Superior Plating runs into more problems

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July 31, 2014 // UPDATED 4:32 pm - August 5, 2014
By: Ben Johnson
Workers vacuum chromium contaminated water at Superior Plating
Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
MPCA says only fix is to cap site; neighborhood upset over owner's lack of communication, security

Every time it rains, yellow pools of contaminated water show up at Superior Plating, sending the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and site owner First and University Investors (FUI) scrambling to retool the site’s pollution cleanup plan.

Per the original plan, the 110,000-square-foot, 114-year-old plating factory at 315 1st Ave. NE was knocked down in April, and over the next two months the debris and soil underneath the factory was chemically treated and hauled away.

Removing the building and soil underneath it all the way down to the bedrock was supposed to leave a clean slate for a massive new mixed-use development, but after heavy rainfall in mid-June it became clear that didn’t work. Ponds of yellow water – colored by chromium, the site’s primary contaminant – formed on top of the bedrock, indicating significant onsite pollution still remains.

Puddles of yellow contaminated water form after a June storm -- photo by Jeff Meehan

“I don’t know if it was a surprise because you never really know what you’re going to find until you actually do the excavation,” said Candace Sykora, a MPCA hydrogeologist who has closely monitored the Superior Plating site. “Previous data did not give evidence that this would be found, so it was something that had to be dealt with.”

An official from the Minnesota Department of Health wrote in an email to the MPCA that chromium can cause skin irritation through direct contact with the yellow water or contaminated dust that is blown offsite. If ingested, chromium can cause long-term health problems. There aren’t any private wells in the area, so any risk to the neighborhood’s drinking water is minimal.

Area residents are upset with FUI over a perceived lack of security at the site, which has led to rampant graffiti and concern that trespassers are tracking contaminated soil offsite.

“Taggers seem to come and go at will, which is indicative of little or no security,” said neighborhood resident Jeff Meehan. Meehan lives across the street from Superior Plating and has been doggedly monitoring the cleanup effort and keeping the neighborhood informed in lieu of FUI’s complete silence.

“I’ve emailed FUI several times and gotten no reply, but I’ve had a great deal of contact with the MPCA and they have been incredibly communicative,” said Meehan.

Neighbors say lax security at Superior Plating has led to rampant graffiti -- photo by Ben Johnson

When the yellow water pools, cleanup crews vacuum it into big blue liquid storage containers, called frac tanks, that sit onsite. Then it’s trucked to a water treatment facility in Roseville and disposed of it at the cost of approximately $1 per gallon.

Jerry Stahnke, MPCA’s project manager for Superior Plating, said he could confirm that at least 70,000 gallons had been vacuumed into frac tanks onsite, although that number is likely higher. During mid-June’s heavy rain 10,000 gallons of contaminated water per day was vacuumed up.

The added expense of sucking up, storing and disposing of the contaminated water is just the latest in a long series of delays, surprises and cost overruns that have plagued FUI’s attempt to clean up and sell the property. According to FUI, demolition costs doubled to more than $6 million after heaps of industrial garbage were found underneath the factory’s floor this winter, delaying the project for two months.

“This is one of the most difficult, complicated sites I’ve come across,” said Steve Voss, FUI’s pollution cleanup consultant, on a tour of the Superior Plating factory in February.

Below: Voss leads a tour of Superior Plating in February

Eric Anderson, FUI’s primary contact for Superior Plating, did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages left by The Journal, and Voss declined to comment on this story without Anderson’s permission.

FUI is a subsidiary of San Francisco-based City Center Realty Partners. It bought Superior Plating in 2012 after it went bankrupt in 2011.

“The neighborhood’s lynchpin development”

FUI had a tentative deal to sell Superior Plating to DLC Residential, a Florida-based developer, but that fell apart around the same time the yellow pools appeared. Members of the Nicollet Island East Bank Neighborhood Association (NIEBNA) were unimpressed after meeting with DLC several times to discuss its concept for the site.

The neighborhood wants a tall, high-density development built with concrete, glass and steel, not the ubiquitous “stick-frame” wood construction DLC was proposing.

FUI received $1,645,083 in pollution cleanup grants from the state and Met Council this spring, in large part because it had DLC lined up ready to develop the site.

“This is the neighborhood’s lynchpin development. We want something big and bold, and [DLC’s] proposal did not come close to that,” said Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey, who lives a few blocks from Superior Plating.

The land is a prime piece of developable real estate, covering two full blocks a mere 300 yards from the Mississippi River. Frey said after DLC walked away from its agreement he has fielded inquiries from six different high-profile developers that are “chomping at the bit” to buy the site.

Searching for solutions       

In mid-July, cleanup crews removed big chunks of protruding bedrock near the site’s northwest corner and pressure washed the rest of the area in an attempt to scrub it clean.

Afterward yellow water continued to pool, so on July 22 Anderson and Voss sat down with the MPCA to try to figure out another solution.

At the meeting the MPCA offered a plan it says will permanently solve the pollution problems and relieve FUI of most of its responsibilities at Superior Plating. The plan calls for FUI to cap the site by installing either a cement or plastic barrier on top of the bedrock, which would divert stormwater and allow it to run off before coming in contact with the chromium-saturated bedrock.

The MPCA says this is the only realistic solution left, and is waiting for Anderson to get approval from his City Center Realty investors.

“The worst case scenario is if they choose not to put in a barrier, then they will just have to keep pumping and treating that water as they have,” said Sykora.

If FUI agrees to install a cap over the bedrock, the MPCA will begin the process of granting FUI a partial certificate of completion for the pollution cleanup agreement that was made when it bought the site, clearing the way for new construction. That process should take about two months.

Ben Johnson // 612-436-5088 // bjohnson@journalmpls.com // @johnsonbend