For decades, from that day in 1977 when it was shut down by state regulators to its listing in 1984 as a “Superfund” environmental and pollution disaster to its $40 million of cleanup beginning in the mid 1990s, the Arrowhead Refinery in Hermantown has been making front-page headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In May, its final (hopefully) front-page headline was for the most right reason of all.
“Site comes off Superfund list,” the News Tribune headline declared, even if not quite accurately. As the story made clear, the Environmental Protection Agency had determined the site was clean enough to be removed from the “Superfund National Priorities List,” following a public comment period.
This week, with that comment period concluded — and with no comments received — the EPA formally announced that the Arrowhead Refinery site “has been deleted from the Superfund National Priorities List, or NPL. The agency has determined that cleanup is now complete and no further (cleanup work) is necessary.”
Time to celebrate. Environmental reclamation is possible. Cleanups can happen successfully — even if they sometimes take decades to complete.
“(This) is a big win for all those who live and work in Hermantown,” acting EPA Region 5 Administrator Cheryl Newton said in the EPA’s announcement. “It also clearly demonstrates EPA’s commitment to cleaning up contaminated sites to protect public health and the environment.”
The old Arrowhead Refinery recycled used and waste oil from 1945 to 1976, generating a waste stream of highly acidic, metal-laden sludge, as the News Tribune reported. The company recycled some and illegally dumped the rest. Millions of gallons of heavy gunk were sent into a swamp outside the plant. The swamp turned into a toxic lagoon. Trees, frogs, birds, and more all died because of the oils, heavy metals, acids, cyanide, phenols, PCBs, and more. The smell was unbearable. The water tested at the most acidic level possible.
After its 10-acre footprint was listed as a Superfund site — “the Northland’s first big toxic Superfund site,” as the News Tribune’s John Myers reported in May — the EPA sued Arrowhead and 15 suppliers of the waste delivered there. The defendants then sued some 250 gas stations and other small businesses that brought their waste oil there.
“The massive lawsuit took six years to settle and was often cited as a national example of why the government and accused polluters should strive to form cleanup agreements outside the courtroom,” the May story reported.
More than 1 million gallons of dumped petroleum products were recovered and recycled during the cleanup, and more than 71,000 tons of material were removed.
Like the rest of us, the city of Hermantown is “grateful” for the successful cleanup, as City Administrator John Mulder said in the EPA statement this week.
“We believe this private-public partnership will result in the successful redevelopment of the site that is consistent with Hermantown’s economic development goals of job creation and enhanced tax base,” Mulder said.
The EPA isn’t entirely done with the site. It’s not just walking away. Long-term stewardship, it said, “will continue to maintain institutional controls, site security and ensure future land use is consistent with the cleanup.” Superfund law also requires reviews every five years following cleanup to ensure the continued protection of human health and the environment.
It’s worth noting — and celebrating — that none of this ongoing monitoring is likely to result in front-page headlines of the bad-news variety. After decades, we can close the book on this one.