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East Side residents exposed to toxins in air and water

Detailed map of East Side neighborhood with numerous red, yellow and gray dots.
A map of East Side St. Paul shows the location of lead pipes in the community. A red dot indicates that both private and city pipes are lead, and a yellow dot indicates a partial lead service (either private or public). A gray dot indicates it's not known whether the property owner has lead pipes. (Image courtesy of SPRWS)

Residents of St. Paul’s East Side have recently had to contend with contaminated soil, air and water. The East Side is one of the most diverse communities in the Twin Cities; according to the National Institutes of Health, communities of color often face disproportionate health risks linked to cumulative exposures to environmental hazards.

If you live near the site of the former Curry’s Mobil station on 7th Street, you received a survey from Carlson McCain in late September asking if you smelled any gas in your basement due to soil contamination from an oil leak.

In late October, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reported it had fined Northern Iron LLC $41,500 for violating air quality standards over a period of fifteen years at its iron foundry on Forest Street. The MPCA stated that the company’s violations carried a risk of potential harmful effects to people and the environment.

And now Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS) is reporting that some homes are seeing higher lead levels in their water than have been reported in more than twenty years, due to aging lead pipes.

“This is not something that anybody's trying to hide,” said Deputy Director Racquel Vaske. “The more customers are aware this exists – there are things that customers can do to reduce their own exposure.”

Vaske says flushing household water taps for ten minutes each morning before using can dramatically reduce the amount of lead someone is exposed to.

This year SPRWS launched a ten year plan to replace all lead pipes in its service area. Water pipes are owned by the city until they reach a property line, at which point they become the responsibility of the property owner. Deputy Director Racquel Vaske says the SPRWS has spent the last 20 years replacing city owned lead pipes with copper. Out of 96,000 service connections across the SPRWS service area, 26,000 of them still have lead pipes in their connections.

“About 9000 of those, we still have lead on our side, and therefore it's a full lead service line," Vaske explained. “The other 15,000 are just partials, it's just on the property owner side.”

Vaske says replacing a home’s lead water pipes can cost around $6,000, which not all families can afford. But she says there is funding available.

“We have a really hard time getting in touch with customers and having them sign up. So this is the moment where I'm coming to your house and I want to give you six thousand dollars of free infrastructure. I need you to answer the phone, I need you to sign a few documents. And we struggle with that if people don't trust us, or think what we're selling is a game.”

Local, community-based organizations are trying to raise awareness of environmental concerns in the neighborhood. Wendell Ward is a fellow with the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC). He says he was inspired to get involved by his own experiences growing up.

“I grew up in Chicago in Altgeld Gardens and there's a whole dump site right next to it. It affected my brother with asthma and all these types of different things. So for me, I see the effects of it from when I was young till now, and I see it being more aggressive now.”

At the end of November the EJCC is hosting a community conversation about water quality, safety, and water systems in Minnesota. It’s part of a four-part series called “The Planet We Live On.”

“Water is essential to the existence of humanity,” said Ward. “So is the air, so is the land – these are the things that we need to grow our vegetables and things that help us consistently to live.”

Ward says this is a family-friendly event, and that the first 25 people who register will receive a $50 gift card for participating. He says it’s a challenge to get people to care about environmental issues, because they aren’t “sexy.”

“So how do we make it sexy? For me, my thing about making it sexy is realizing that you need it to live. That should be sexy. You want to live, right?”

The event runs from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30 at 30,000 Feet at 1351 Arcade Street.


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