WILLMAR — While the Willmar City Council has not publicly given reasons why it has decided not to purchase Block 25 for a new city hall, public records from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency show the site of the former Nelsen's Laundry still requires environmental cleanup.
While it was previously reported by the Willmar City Hall Task Force that the MPCA had said the site was clean, that has turned out not to be accurate as the MPCA is still investigating a chemical leak at the site. Laurie Kania, a petroleum remediation project manager at the MPCA, said the state agency never said the site was completely clean, just that the petroleum remediation work had concluded at the site in 2018.
"We never said in the letter it was a clean site," Kania said.
Block 25 is located between Second and Third Street Streets Southwest, bordered by U.S. Highway 12 and Benson Avenue Southwest. The city already owns half the block as a city parking lot. The rest of the block is made up of the Nelsen and Wodash properties.
There have been two separate issues pertaining to the old Nelsen's Laundry, according to the MPCA. The first was a fuel oil leak, discovered on June 29, 2017. When the building was being demolished, an underground fuel tank was discovered, and oil had leaked from the tank. The tank, along with five cubic yards of soil, was removed, Kania said. The remaining contamination was deemed not to be creating a risk for the vacant lot, so the site was closed in July 2018.
The second issue is a leak of tetrachloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent also known as PCE. The chemical was discovered in the groundwater and as a soil vapor. Sondra Campbell, hydrologist with the MPCA, said the groundwater concentrations at the Nelsen site exceeded the health risk limits and the owner of the property will now need to discover how large and how serious the leak is.
PCE is a colorless liquid and can cause an array of symptoms if a person is exposed to high concentrations of it. Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, unconsciousness and death, according to the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Long-term exposure to low levels of PCE can cause changes in mood, memory, attention, reaction time and vision.
The MPCA monitored the soil vapor of PCE for two seasons. The results of those tests did not show a risk of vapor intrusion at the site as it is currently being used and the MPCA has not requested soil samplings. However, if the site use is changed, such as a commercial building being constructed on site, there could be some extra work needed and environmental restrictions put on the property due to the PCE, Campbell said.
"This will all be documented," Campbell said.
Nelsen's Laundry was located on Block 25 for more than 100 years. Following the business' closure, the owners of the property enrolled in the MPCA's Voluntary Remediation Program in October 2017. The owner retains responsibility for the property and the cleanup work needed. The MPCA assists the owner through the process.
Block 25 was the second site the city seriously considered for a possible new city hall. The first was property on the Willmar Fire Station site, but that idea was abandoned after public and Fire Department concerns.
The City Council in May approved moving forward with purchasing Block 25, but by June, following a closed City Council meeting, the council made no action to purchase the property.
Currently, the City Hall Task Force is taking a close look at the Willmar Community Center site and the possibility of constructing a joint city hall and community center on the land. The task force decided at a meeting earlier this month to start looking outside of downtown Willmar for a city hall site.