MINNEAPOLIS -- Thetrichloroethylene cleanup project in southeast Minneapolis is not the only one in the state, let alone the nation.

That chemical compound, typically abbreviated as TCE, has contaminated the soil and groundwater of many formerindustrial sites across Minnesota, and around the US.

TCE has been front and center in the Como Neighborhood of southeast Minneapolis since November, when 200 residents received letterstelling themthe MPCA would begin testing for TCE vapor emanating from the soil beneath basements.

General Mills used TCE as a parts cleanerfrom the 1940s through the mid 1960's at itsresearch lab on East Hennepin Avenue, and dumpedthe fluidin the back lot of the facility. The chemical reached the water table, and a plume ofcontaminated groundwater spread under ground toward the Mississippi River.

Once the contamination was discovered in the early 1980's it was designated as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, thoselisted as a priority fora cleanup.

General Mills began an extensive groundwater testing and cleanup project at that time, and continues to filter andtreat the groundwater in that area to this day.

Health Risks

Prolonged exposure to T-C-E has been linked liver and kidney cancers, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and birth defects, especially heart defects in newborns.

The most common ways of ingesting TCE is by drinking contaminated groundwater, or frequent use of degreasing products such as brake cleaning sprays.

Fortunately the people in the Como Neighborhood did not drink any groundwater, because their tap wateris piped infrom the City of Minneapoliswater system.

But in the past four years the EPA has begun to focus on the threat of TCE vapor intrusion, orfumes movingfrom soil under basements into living spaces.

A toxicologist with the Minn. Dept. of Health told residents at a meeting in November their most immediate concern would be for pregnant women who live in basement apartments, due to the threat of birth defects.

For those houses that test above the advisable limit, the fix is fairly simple. A fan-assisted ventilation system -- similar to the one used for treating homes for radon gas -- can be installed.

So far General Mills, under supervision of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has gone to 85 homes to collect air samples from spaces under basement floors. Of those samples 65 have been analyzed.And 42 of thosehomeowners have been offered ventilation free of charge.

In the meantime, a Chicago law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some of the homeowners. The same firm won an out-of-court settlement against the Madison-Kipp auto parts plant in Madison, WI earlier this year in a lawsuit related to TCE vapors.

But a member of consumer advocate Erin Brockovich's teammet with residents on Saturday morning and advised them that individual lawsuits may be a better route to take thana class-action case, because so much is still unknown.

TCE's lasting legacy

In fact, nationwide TCE has been detected at more than 800 EPA Superfund sites -- those targeted for priority cleanup -- across the United States.

The EPA's list of Superfund cleanup sites in Minnesotaincludes many where TCE is the principal contaminant, or one of several problem chemicals.

Among them is the Naval Industrial Reserve Ordnance Plant site in Fridley, where the chemical was discovered in the 1980's and an EPA-supervised cleanup began in 1990.

TCE was also the contaminant that led to a major groundwater cleanup in Baytown Township, where well water tested above acceptable thresholds. The solvent had been used by a metal working business in that area from the 1940's through the 1960's.

The FMC Corporation's Fridley Plant was also the site of a large scale TCE cleanup, when the soil and groundwater were found to be contaminated.

TCE is the same chemical that contaminated well water at the Marine's Camp LeJeune for decades, until it was discovered in 1985.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control found a higher incidence of spina bifida and pre-natal brain deformations in babies carried by women who drank water at Camp Lejeune.

And TCE contamination in Massachusetts inspired the Jonathan Harr novel A Civil Action, which became a movie in 1999 starring John Travolta.

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