Four Minn. cities get state money to study petroleum leak sites

A snow-filled field with metal pipes sticking out near houses.
The site of a former service station in Paynesville, where a petroleum leak was discovered in the 1980s and forced the city to close two of its wells. The city received state funding in 2015 for a water treatment system.
Courtesy of City of Paynesville

Four Minnesota cities are receiving state funding to analyze whether leaded gasoline from leaking storage tanks is putting their drinking water at risk.

The Legislature approved $200,000 to investigate petroleum leak sites in Paynesville, Alexandria, Foley and Blaine.

The additional study comes in the wake of a former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employee filing a whistleblower lawsuit last year against his former employer. 

Mark Toso raised questions about the state’s petroleum remediation program where he’d worked as a hydrologist for a decade, and whether it was doing enough to prevent leaded gasoline from contaminating groundwater.

Toso's lawsuit is still pending. Meanwhile, state lawmakers authorized $200,000 for Paynesville to take the lead in hiring a consultant to analyze the extent of leaded gasoline contamination and the threat it poses to each city’s drinking water supply.

Paynesville Mayor Shawn Reinke called the funding “good news for the city.” He said the additional analysis will help answer lingering questions city officials have about the site.

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"This is just a study, just an analysis, to see if more soil removal would be beneficial and cost effective,” Reinke said.

The Paynesville contamination, from underground tanks at a former service station, was first discovered in the 1980s. Chemicals from the petroleum leached into the groundwater and forced the city two close two of its wells. The MPCA replaced the wells. 

City officials urged the MPCA to excavate the site and remove the contaminated soil, which the agency resisted. In 2015, the Legislature appropriated up to $2.5 million for a treatment system to remove chemicals from the city’s water.

The city recently had its water supply independently tested and found it’s safe to drink, Reinke said.

“We did that just out of an abundance of caution, knowing that there might be some eyebrows raised with the allegations of the lawsuit,” he said.

However, the MPCA doesn’t agree that additional study is needed. 

The agency is monitoring the Paynesville site and is confident the plume isn't moving or contaminating the city's drinking water, said Jamie Wallerstedt, the MPCA’s remediation division director. 

About 1,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil was removed from the Paynesville site in 1990. Follow-up studies found that it wasn’t feasible or necessary to take more soil out of the ground, Wallerstedt said.

Early warning detection monitoring wells between the petroleum site and Paynesville’s drinking water system would alert the agency if the contamination plume was getting close, Wallerstedt said.

“We monitor that closely,” she said. “The contamination is stable, and it's not moving in the direction of the city's drinking water.”

The same is true for the petroleum leak sites in the other three cities, she said. 

Wallerstedt said the MPCA is willing to review the consultant’s information and recommendations and consider whether a change of plan is needed. However, she added, “Cleaning up beyond what's necessary does come with a cost.”

In February, the Office of the Legislative Auditor released an evaluation of the petroleum remediation program that called for better regulation and oversight of consultants hired to work at petroleum release sites. 

It also said when considering how to address a release, the agency doesn’t consider how a property might be used in the future.

Wallerstedt said the MPCA is taking steps to address the recommendations in the report, including improving how it tracks and monitors low-risk leaks. She said the quality of contractors does affect the agency’s handling of leak sites.

“We do stand by that the decisions made at our sites are sound, and they protect the health of Minnesotans,” she said.