Area C: The overlooked Ford site

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

You might be familiar with the main Ford site and its redevelopment plans, but the hazardous waste dump site at Area C on the river's edge is less well-known. Three beloved parks, Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul and Minnehaha Falls Park and the Minehaha Dog Park in Minneapolis, lie immediately downstream of this site.

The redevelopment of the Ford Motor Company Twin Cities Assembly Plant site along the St. Paul river bluff has attracted a lot of attention. FMR has been an active advocate for density, parks, environmentally sensitive development and Critical Area compliance there throughout this years-long planning process. (Read some of our takes on Ford site planning.)

However, we've also been focused for many years on another part of the Ford site that's gotten much less attention: Area C.

What is Area C?

From 1945 until 1966, the Ford Motor Company dumped unknown quantities of industrial waste, including solvents and paint sludge, on the floodplain of the Mississippi River below the bluff near its St. Paul assembly plant. Construction rubble from Ford, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city of St. Paul was later added on top of the hazardous waste, creating a massive pile of concrete, steel and other debris. This dump was un-permitted and unlined.

The dump, known as Area C, adjoins the popular Hidden Falls Park and the Mississippi River. When the river rises, floodwaters regularly inundate the site.

While Area C is somewhat inaccessible to the public, you can see it from Hidden Falls Park, the Ford bridge, across the river near Lock and Dam No. 1 and some parts of Minnehaha Park. Some readers may have actually visited the site without knowing it, as the concrete pad covering the dump also serves as a State Fair park-and-ride lot. 

What's leaking into the river? More study needed

While Ford and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) assert that any toxic waste leaking into the river from this dumpsite is within the levels considered safe for humans, we're not confident that the current groundwater monitoring systems are sufficiently capturing and characterizing the risk. In partnership with the Capitol Region Watershed District, we had engineers review Ford's monitoring plans and data in 2017-18.

Those consultants identified significant gaps in the groundwater monitoring network surrounding the site — gaps that make us doubt that Ford is currently able to give the public a sufficient report of what might be leaking into the river. Flood conditions, like those we had this spring, often raise water levels above the elevation of the hazardous waste and give even more cause for concern. The city of St. Paul's engineering consultants have also identified similar concerns.

In September 2018, FMR and our partners met with the MPCA to share our consultants' findings and request that Ford expand its groundwater monitoring at Area C. Ford has agreed to some expanded monitoring, but not all of our requests.

FMR and its partners have also asked Ford to test for PFAS (also referred to as PFCs), a class of chemicals increasingly understood to pose serious environmental and health threats. PFAS compounds have been nicknamed "forever chemicals" because they don't break down over time as some substances do. The MPCA recently agreed to FMR's request and is requiring Ford to begin PFAS monitoring.

In the meantime, Ford has begun a feasibility study to explore options for addressing Area C. The options they may assess include full dump removal, partial removal (removing some of the hazardous waste but not the construction rubble on top of it), or making small changes to address erosion concerns without removing any waste.

We've requested that the feasibility study not settle on a final recommendation until the additional monitoring we've requested is complete and the community has had opportunities to weigh in.

Area C affects many people (not to mention wildlife): site neighbors, visitors to the neighboring popular regional parks, river lovers, anglers and everyone who uses the river or its water downstream. The public needs ample opportunity to be informed and involved.

Get involved

At the request of FMR and its partners, the MPCA has agreed to hold a public meeting, now scheduled for February 20, 2020 from 6-8 p.m. At this meeting, they'll share more information about the groundwater monitoring Ford has carried out, the feasibility study and their response to the requests that FMR and others have made for further study of the site. Learn more about the event here.

We'd love to have you join us at this meeting. To receive a reminder e-mail about the meeting and other occasional Area C updates, please let us know

For more information about Area C in general, please contact Colleen O'Connor Toberman, River Corridor Program Director, at ctoberman@fmr.org or 651.222.2193 x29.