Local Residents Revolt at UMore Park Meeting

A planned open house-format presentation on UMore Park contamination quickly turned into an open forum as Rosemount residents insisted on open dialogue with the University of Minnesota and other presenters.

Editor's note: UMore Park isn't just a Rosemount thing. It's a Dakota County thing with implications for Lakeville and surrounding communities.

Dozens of Rosemount residents gathered Thursday night for a public meeting regarding the results of a recent Remedial Investigation (RI) on contamination issues at the University of Minnesota’s UMore Park property in Rosemount.

The university has big development plans for the site that include a future eco-friendly, sustainable community of 25,000-30,000 within the City of Rosemount.

The meeting was supposed to be an informal open-house format where residents could view a series of poster boards, then hear a formal presentation on the RI results from representatives of the university, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and Barr Engineering, the company that was hired by the university to conduct the analytical testing of groundwater and soil on the property.

University officials have stated that nothing found in the RI would prevent development of the land.

But discussion over toxic chemical contamination at the U of M research land and former WWII Gopher Ordnance Works (GOW) gunpowder manufacturing plant seemed to spontaneously combust into an explosion of mistrust of and accusations toward the university.

Public questions were planned to be reserved for one-on-one sessions at the back-of-the-room poster boards following the formal presentation on the results.

Those results were on May 22.

But residents in attendance strongly expressed their displeasure at not being given the opportunity for an open dialogue.

After a brief closing word of caution about the dangers of trespassing on the UMore property without a university-provided escort due to structural hazards, officials said they'd be happy to adjourn to the poster boards in the back of the room for questions.

“Why do we have to be separated to ask our questions?” asked Carl Johnson, who has lived across the street from the UMore Park land for seven years in a development known as The Enclave.

Johnson then launched into a tirade that set the tone for the fireworks that were to follow.

“I’ve been to a lot of these meetings,” said Johnson. “And it seems like there’s a lot of hush-hush and get everybody out ... this gentleman over here had a question earlier. Why can’t we we hear what it was? ... Get serious. Would you guys live there right now? ... If the answer is ‘no’, then you better start coming clean and being honest with us. None of this hush-hush ... you’re in our back yard. We’re not in yours.”

“What is the outcome? What did you find out?” added Ranelle Johnson. “We’ve heard how you did it, but what was the outcome? How much contamination is there? Is it affecting our drinking water? ... This man [Carl Johnson] just got diagnosed with leukemia. Is it a result of that? From drinking this water for the last seven years? Can you tell me?”

“You can’t tell us any more than we can tell you,” said Carl Johnson. “But all I know is we’re not hearing the answers. It’s a dog and pony show."

“This is our neighborhood and we want to know what's going on," Carl Johnson added. "You stay here until the last question has been answered. I’ve said that in every single meeting and you people get up and say, that’s enough. Well, maybe we’ve had enough.”

Other residents quickly piled on. And after some hesitation by the presenters, who continued to suggest that questions could be addressed individually at the poster boards, what was supposed to be an informal mingling affair, quickly turned into an unrelenting open public forum.

“We are not going to leave,” said Janet Dalgleish, a representative from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety. ”As long as you have questions, we’ll be here to answer them.”

So the public onslaught continued.

“They poisoned our water for three years, for crying in the night,” said Myron Naper, a Rosemount resident who has lived next to the GOW/UMore land for 60 years. “I can tell you every one of those spots out there that is contaminated ... It’s too bad it comes to this to try and educate us. The worst part of it is, you’re all sleeping in the same bed. Whatever the university says, we’ll back you up ... but they’re not taking care of the residents out here.”

“What’s the problem?” Naper continued. “The university keeps lying, and lying, and lying. Period.”

Distrust was a common theme throughout the public comments and the presenters offered little in addressing specific concerns. They did, however, eventually move some posterboards up front and openly faced the firing line of public comments.

“I think an important context to this investigation is that it isn’t the end-all, be-all,” said Jim Eidem, a Barr Engineering representative. “This is not the end of the data collection period out here. This is the first comprehensive look at the site. And there are limits as to the size of investigations.”

It was stated at the meeting that the Barr RI was contracted by the university in an open bid process at a cost of approximately $1 million dollars.

In a conversation with Dakota County environmental officials prior to the meeting, Patch was told that a whole comprehensive site analysis would conceivably cost “at least” an estimated $8 million to $10 million.

Some residents expressed additional concerns over what wasn’t found, or looked for, during what they felt have been prior site investigations with limited scope.

In a 2008 letter to the MPCA, Barr Engineering, in critiquing (on the university's behalf) a prior U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' assessment on portions of the property, stated:

“The association of the asbestos, nickel, zinc, copper, aluminum, tin, perchlorate, nitrates, and herbicides with the FGOW operations are a matter of record.... These parameters should therefore be included in all future site investigations.”

But most of those hazardous substances were still omitted from testing in the current Barr RI being discussed at the meeting.

When asked why that was the case, Eidem stated he would have to follow up on the answer at a later time.

While the public’s aim was squarely targeted at the university, Eidem did defend his company’s position as an independent contractor.

“At some point, if we can have an honest dialogue about what the university found in this investigation, I’m standing before you and I’d be happy to answer any questions on what we found.

“I don’t have the answers and nobody has all the answers,” Eidem continued. “And there’s going to be additional work done over the years ... We followed a plan ... that data is defensible ... I totally understand that there’s this back and forth between the local community and the university. All I can say is I was here as an impartial person conducting this investigation. I’m an environmental professional. One job, for one client isn’t something I would throw my career away for ... I don’t know if you consider that an appeal, but, I’ll be happy to talk about the data.”

Resident concerns ranged from the large amount of asbestos that remains on site due to the non-flammable construction of the former GOW buildings, to multiple chemicals and metals in the soil, and still-potential groundwater contamination.

The animosity on display at the meeting seemed to stem from a distrust of publicly disclosed information. But the university defended their position with residents after the meeting.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” said Dalgleish. ”We tested for the chemicals that most likely show up on an industrial site. The ones that create the most problems. We didn’t take every sample based on the same thing, we based it on history. But the total list is probably 500 chemicals.”

That still wasn’t enough to assuage some.

“There’s not full disclosure and I have a problem with that,” said Don Sinnwell, who was also a forceful voice during the meeting. “It needs to be cleaned up, and it needs to be done properly. And that’s all we’re looking for. I don’t think that’s being done.”

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