SWIFT FALLS -- Just as time and new grass can erase the signs of death on a battlefield, the same is happening in Swift Falls where a once hazardous site is becoming a park.
Nearly seven years after a fire torched Midwest Cylinder, a business where thousands of old liquid propane tanks were being stored and refurbished, the cleanup process is nearly finished.
Once Swift County completes the task of containing about seven yards of lead-contaminated soil, the county will receive a "no further action determination" letter from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The three-acre site will then become part of the county's 100-acre park located on the other side of the road along the Chippewa River. "It's a thousand times better," Scott Collins, director of Swift County Environmental Services said of the bare land that had once been a tremendous eyesore for the small Swift County community. "Everybody's so happy that it's still not there," he said. "Ten years ago, I never thought it would happen."
Collins has an entire file cabinet filled with documents about Midwest Cylinder site that he's accumulated during the past decade.
It started in 1999, when about 100 county residents, including Paige Amundson, signed a petition asking that Midwest Cylinder clean up its property. At that time, thousands of rusty 20- to 100-pound LP cylinders were stacked on top of each other in seemingly endless rows on the property. More were stashed in a grove of nearby trees.
The smell of mercaptan that was released when the cylinders were vented often hung over the river, the village and the downstream county park.
"It was disgusting," said Amundson, recalling what she and her neighbors lived with back then. "It was a mess."
Part of her reason for signing the petition in 1999 was because of fear that a fire there would harm residents. "It was a safety issue," she said.
That fear was realized in September of 2002 when the business went up in flames late at night.
Following the fire, the county and the MPCA played tug-of-war with the Midwest Cylinder owner to get the property cleaned up. The company did eventually remove all the cylinders and the county then purchased the land for $13,000 in 2004. With the help of state grants, everything down to the contaminated soil was removed from the site. Newly planted grass is coming up nicely now.
"Seeing the new green grass growing -- it's like a new growth coming out of a thorn," said Amundson. "There's no more of those ugly cylinders."
With all the roadblocks during the years, Amundson said she wondered if the cleanup would ever be completed.
It was a process of give and take, said Collins, that included taking "one step forward, three steps back."
The process could have gone faster if the county would have had $200,000 to $300,000 to do the project on its own. Instead, by working with the state and waiting for grants, the project was done at a price the county could afford, said Collins.
The final step to getting the environmental "all clear" involves storage of a few yards of lead-contaminated soil. The county put it in a plastic-lined concrete bunker of sorts. The MPCA, however, wants the soil to be incorporated under the cement floor of a picnic shelter that will be built on the site to prevent the lead from moving.
Collins said the county is looking for local grants to help get that phase of the project done yet this year. While commending the county commissioners for their commitment to the project, Collins said he hopes the county won't have to "bite the bullet" and come up with funds of their own to build the shelter.
Besides a picnic shelter, Collins said they hope to receive funding from the Department of Natural Resources for a handicapped accessible fishing pier to be placed above the dam.
"People are very appreciative of how it's looking," said Amundson, who's eager for the grass to grow a little thicker and for the picnic shelter and fishing pier to be completed so that people can "enjoy the beauty of the river" from another side. "It's like a diamond in the rough," she said.