What a minor flood season could mean for Ford Area C

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman
A map showing Area C on the east side of the Mississippi River. South of the main Ford site, north of Hidden Falls Park, and across the river from Minnehaha Falls Park.

As the redevelopment of the former Ford Motor Company plant in St. Paul continues, FMR is monitoring the future of Area C, Ford’s hazardous waste dump on the Mississippi River floodplain next to Hidden Falls Park.

Since 2017, we've been working with the Capitol Region Watershed District to better understand what’s happening at Area C, the environmental risks, and how we can secure the best possible future for the site. Together, we're advocating for stronger Minnesota Pollution Control Agency oversight of Area C.

Area C hasn't been in the news lately, so you might be wondering what's happening at the dump. Here's an update.

Expanded groundwater monitoring

After advocacy by FMR, its partners, and community members, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) agreed to expand its monitoring of Area C. One step was to require that Ford install additional groundwater monitoring wells, which are regularly sampled to provide information on any hazardous substances that might be leaking out of the waste and into the Mississippi River.

Ford continues to conduct regular groundwater tests at all of its monitoring wells, including the additional wells they added last summer. This expanded monitoring will be used to inform a feasibility study to determine the site's future. 

The feasibility study will explore different options for cleaning up the site, weighing factors such as environmental risk, cost and community acceptance. The public will have a chance to weigh in on a draft of the study, after which the MPCA will select a cleanup alternative and request that Ford implement it.

Cleanup alternatives may range from minor actions, like requiring ongoing monitoring and addressing surface debris and erosion issues, to full removal of the waste pile. The better the monitoring data, the better we can understand the risks and benefits of different cleanup scenarios.

In the spring of 2019, Area C was inundated by floodwater. This is one of the older monitoring wells at the site; additional wells were installed in August 2020.

Flood data needed

At FMR, we've long wondered whether the conditions in the waste pile change with the river's water levels. At what's considered "moderate flood stage," the river rises enough that it appears to inundate the lower portion of the waste pile. This could lead to hazardous substances being washed out of the pile at higher rates. We don't know whether or not that's happening.

To help address this question, the MPCA has committed to including monitoring data from the new monitoring wells through at least two flood cycles when it proceeds with the feasibility study. The agency previously stated that it anticipates the feasibility study to be released in 2022.

However, the river hasn't ever approached flood levels since the installation of the additional wells last August. A large, sustained rainfall could trigger flooding sometime this summer, but it's more likely that the river will not see flood potential until the spring of 2022 at the earliest.

The feasibility study timeline may be pushed back if it takes longer than originally anticipated to experience two flood cycles. We're okay with that: It's better to wait for the data than to move forward without it. 

Stay updated

We'll share updates when the Area C feasibility study moves forward.

If you'd like to be notified of opportunities to weigh in on Area C's future and other local riverfront plans and ways to protect the river's health, sign up for our Ford Area C email list.