White Bear Lake home built on empty car battery cases that still contain lead

Published: Apr. 28, 2018 at 6:34 AM CDT
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Burnell and Sue Brown have a million dollar view on the south shore of Birch lake.

But you don’t have to look hard to reveal something far less appealing – the home’s concrete foundation hides a serious problem.

“They (the builder) cut off the tops of the batteries like this, turned them upside down and used them for filler,” Burnell Brown said.

The three-story lakeside house was built in 1939 and was part of a small resort with two tiny cabins near the lake. Back then, it was fairly common for builders to use hollowed-out battery cases instead of rocks or bricks to minimize the amount of concrete.

Years later, the problem is that while the core of the battery was removed the empty cases still contain traces of dangerous lead. In 2012, Burnell was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, something he and his doctor blame on the exposure to lead particles.

“No one ever suspected they were contaminated,” said Burnell.

The battery cases are hidden within the home’s poured concrete walls. They are in the remodeled basement, in a lakefront retaining wall and even in the foundation of the garage.

“I figured I got about a thousand batteries on this lot,” Burnell said.

The couple has attempted selling the home several times without as much as an offer.

“Everybody told us the buyer is a developer who’s going to knock it down and rebuild. Nobody can knock it down cause they will disturb the batteries,” Sue Brown said.

Burnie says the city knew of the problem years ago, but still approved all of his requests for permits to remodel the home. City building inspectors were at the home, but never flagged any sign of trouble.

White Bear Lake City Attorney Andy Pratt calls the situation unfortunate, but hasn’t found evidence of the city’s liability.

“What’s really irritating is that they kept it a secret,” Burnie Brown said.

Meantime, the county has devalued the property to just $75,000, which is far under the couple’s asking price of $385,000 when it last was listed.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rejected the couple’s application for remediation funds. While no clear solution is near, the Brown’s problem serves as a warning to other owners of 1930s vintage homes.

“I guarantee you there are other houses in Minnesota with this situation,” Burnell said.

Unable to sell the home, the Brown’s are left with just one hope. They suggest the city purchase the property for its planned 10-foot wide bike path that would encroach on the couple’s home.

It would give the city a large lake lot and solve an environmental problem along the way.