Struck by Lightning, Steeped in PCBs
Former Lightning and Transients Research Institute created a monster cleanup problem
for the University of Minnesota
At the former Lightning and Transients Research Institute (LTRI), scholars weren’t interested in
creating a new Frankenstein. Instead, researchers wanted to capture lightning and test its effects
on airplane instruments.
But LTRI founder and Professor Morris Newman and his University of Minnesota colleagues did
create a monster, despite the best of intentions — a hazardous haunted house. The invisible
bogeyman turned out to be polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a class of hazardous chemicals
formerly used in electrical transformers that persist for a long time in the environment.
(For more information about the health impacts of PCBs, visit the Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry Web site at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts17.html.)
The building began life in 1906 as a substation for St. Croix Valley Power, which later merged
with NSP (now Xcel Energy), and was home base for the power line from the Taylor’s Falls
hydroelectric plant. In 1917 the line was moved and the building was used for storage until
1946, when the LTRI moved there from the airport.
LTRI was a private venture funded by aeronautical companies and the military to study the
effects of lightning on aircraft instruments in flight. Already five stories tall, LTRI had a
30-foot tower on its roof to capture lightning. And if that didn’t work, it also had a
3-million-volt DC machine to create lightning that it would use to zap a World War II airplane
resting in the yard.
Unlike Frankenstein, the antique bomber never sparked to life or attracted a significant other.
But, like a horror film, the LTRI developed a life of its own.
Newman died in 1974. Then a successor developed amnesia in 1986, forcing the operation to
“There were banks of transformers and capacitors,” says Jerry Stahnke, a MPCA Program
project leader who investigated the building prior to its demolition in 1997. “Some were so
large they looked like walk-in refrigerators.” All of these transformers used to store electrical
energy were literally dripping with PCBs.
After LTRI shut down, scavengers discovered that the building was a mother lode — wiring,
capacitors and transformers all made of salvageable copper. As miners hacked and whacked for
copper, the liquid-PCB-laced insulation oozed out. Soon, the whole building was steeped in
Gordon Girtz, project manager for the University of Minnesota’s Environmental Health and
Safety Department, became responsible for the cleanup. The University bought the property as
part of a parcel package in 1974, before anyone suspected that PCB pollution was an issue.
“Much of the PCB contamination outside the building was a result of the LTRI staff throwing
old parts or components out the back door,” Girtz says. But the inside contamination was the
work of the copper scavengers, as well as transients who haunted the place looking for
somewhere to sleep.
“The police called me down to the building once because they caught a man and a woman,
complete with their Craftsman toolbox, working like beavers,” Girtz says. “They already had a
pocket full of receipts from several different metal recovery yards for previous efforts.” In
homeless shelters, news spread of a copper mine disguised as an abandoned research center.
The University initially spent $300,000 to clean up and clean out the building in 1988, when
federal regulations required transformers with PCB levels of 500 parts per million and above to
be replaced and disposed of properly. There were thousands of capacitors and 33 huge
transformers contaminated with PCBs. A newspaper story said the center had “40 roll-off
dumpsters full of contaminated materials.”
In 1995 more investigation by the MPCA showed cleanup was still needed. “We had to wear
protective gear and then decontaminate after we were in there,” Stahnke says. “The old
transformers had extremely high levels of PCBs and spilled oil from these transformers was
The total cleanup bill was more than $1 million, but the University received state-tax-based
revitalization grants through Metropolitan Council to clean up this “brownfield” and return it to
There is a happy ending to this PCB horror story. Now PCB-free, the former hazardous waste
site is being reborn as a multi-million dollar auto care facility. And the lightning research didn’t
go to waste, either. Some of it had to do with electrostatic charges on computer systems, which
helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to protect the space shuttle Columbia
from lightning strikes.
— Mark Sulzbach