This is Part Three of a MintPress series about a cluster of rare illnesses in a Minneapolis, Minn. suburb. Click here to read Part One. Click here to read Part Two. (MintPress) – During the spring of 1989, Jeremy Hurkman and his friends stumbled upon a rare site at a public park in Brooklyn Park, Minn. – a northern […]
(MintPress) – During the spring of 1989, Jeremy Hurkman and his friends stumbled upon a rare site at a public park in Brooklyn Park, Minn. – a northern suburb of Minneapolis. Then 12 years old, Hurkman saw that the popular play area he frequented appeared to be leaking, as if an underground faucet had been unearthed. The site wasn’t leaking water, however, but rather a black tar-like substance that covered a large swath of a wooded area. More than two decades later, after the incident was largely forgotten, an independent investigation is looking at the site as a possible source of an illness cluster in the city.
In an interview with MintPress, Hurkman, 36, recalled what he saw that spring afternoon while at the park. He noted that he and his friends were intrigued by the substance after accidentally walking into a puddle of it.
“Before we really noticed it, we stepped in it and it ate a hole in one of the shoes I was wearing – I noticed it the next day,” Hurkman recalled. “It also ate a hole in one of my buddy’s shoes.”
As curious as boys can be, Hurkman and his friends attempted to use a tree branch to extract some of the emulsified liquid. Shortly after prodding around, the boys left the branch behind, only to come back to some astonishing evidence the next day.
“While we were there, before we left, we had taken out a big tree branch and stuck it into that stuff,” he said. “The stick had to be eight or 10 feet long, and when we went back there the next day the stick that was in the ground was gone; we pulled it out and it was probably four feet long.”
The same substance that ate a hole in the rubber soles of their shoes also disintegrated a tree branch within a day’s time. So it comes as no surprise that after various reports of the substance, hazardous materials workers fenced off the area and cleaned up the site. Reports of past Brooklyn Park residents say barrels of the substance were removed from the area Hurkman and his friends were.
Past documentation from the State of Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency (PCA) reveals that the substance was likely a byproduct of a private dump site operated at the location between the 1940s and the 1960s. Tests revealed that the substance contained “high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) chlorinated solvent compounds, petroleum product constituents, heavy metal compounds and a very acidic pH of 1,” the PCA concluded.
The PCA documented that the site was capped with more soil and left until 2006, when it was then covered with asphalt and turned into an outdoor hockey rink. The site was registered as a Superfund location, meaning that it made the federal government National Priorities List (NPL) for hazardous waste sites designated for cleanup. It was removed from the NPL in 1999. Superfund is the federal government’s program that regulates the cleanup of the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
The Superfund program is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) in Washington, D.C. The EPA says the program has been tremendously successful over the past 20 years with locating and analyzing tens of thousands of hazardous waste sites.
Compound in question
While the EPA says the leak at Central Park has posed no risk for the last 13 years, the presence of PCBs has raised questions of an alleged illness cluster in Brooklyn Park, particularly in residential areas in close proximity to Central Park.
Kim Dombrowski Hutchens, a 42-year-old mother of two, has been suspicious of an illness cluster that she says has seen people between the ages of 35 and 45 with ties to the city stricken with various forms of cancer, auto-immune disease and neurological disorders. Hutchens, who has a litany of conditions of her own – including Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that that causes weakness of voluntary muscles – learned of other people her age who had lived or currently still live in Brooklyn Park through Facebook who suffered from the same disorder.
Hutchens created a Facebook group to help aggregate the cases of illnesses and found that nearly all of the reports, which exceed 500, were centrally located around a creek that runs through the city and around the Central Park site that was once on the government’s NPL. She has said that the concentration of illnesses and the evidence of a once-registered Superfund site raise questions.
“I keep thinking, ‘There’s no way that a group of us could have that bad of luck,’” Hutchens said. “There has to be a link somehow. You can’t have this many people have these many problems without there being some link.”
Hutchens speculates that the PCBs discovered at the Central Park site are a candidate for further investigation. In late June, when environmental activist Erin Brockovich visited a nearby suburb to Brooklyn Park, one of her lead investigators, Robert Bowcock, told Hutchens that Brockovich’s group was aware of the concerns in Brooklyn Park because of its close proximity to Fridley, the town Brockovich was visiting at the time.
According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), PCBs are a mixture of up to 209 chlorinated compounds. It classifies their forms of existence as liquids, solids or vapor. Concerns over their impact on humans and animals halted their widespread use in manufacturing.
“The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the United States in 1977 because of evidence they build up in the environment and can cause health problems,” the CDC notes. “Products made before 1977 that may contain PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures and electrical devices containing PCB capacitors, and old microscope and hydraulic oils.”
PCBs have varying degrees of association with cancer, immune effects and reproductive issues. Studies by the EPA suggest that PCBs are a probable carcinogen in humans and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that those who once worked with PCBs are at an elevated risk for cancer.
EPA studies also show that children born to women who once worked with PCBs showed decreased birth weight and a “significant” decrease in gestational age. In those with an immunocompromised condition such as Epstein-Barr, exposure to PCBs created an increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The high concentration of PCBs in the 1989 leak at Central Park, despite the compounds being banned in the late ‘70s, is due to the compounds’ longevity after disposal, according to the CDC.
“PCBs do not easily break down in the environment, so they may remain there for a long time. PCBs can travel long distances in the air to areas far away from where they were released. In water, a small amount of PCBs may remain dissolved, but most stick to organic particles and bottom sediments. PCBs also attach strongly to soil.”
Continued search for answers
Hutchens is less than two months into her investigation of what she feels to be a serious illness cluster. She admits that her lack of expertise in the sciences has made the learning curve significant. She has recruited help in a variety of forms, from volunteers who stepped up at a recent public meeting she hosted, to recruiting chemistry students from a nearby community college and making state representatives aware of her efforts.
“It’s been hit or miss, although I’m starting to realize, that just doing this over a month, that things are starting to click in terms of who I’m supposed to get a hold of,” Hutchens recently told MintPress.
From the very beginning of her investigation, Hutchens acknowledged that she had no initial intention of pointing fingers or bringing the issue to litigation. Having grown up in Brooklyn Park nearly her entire life, Hutchens said she doesn’t want the same fate for her daughters that has stricken her if it is avoidable.
“My kids are here. I don’t want them to go through anything like what I’ve been through; my brother, my friends,” Hutchens lamented. “I can’t put them through that without knowing if where we live is going to kill them. I can’t do that.”
While she describes the work as “overwhelming” at times, Hutchens said the mounting evidence has only increased her desire to connect the illnesses.
“It’s gotten stronger,” Hutchens said. “The more and more people that are logged on my map, the more and more it becomes evident I think that this isn’t just a fluke. Whatever it is … something is not right and it’s specifically around Central Park and Shingle Creek.”