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February 06 2013 10:37

MPCA program helps property owners protect human health, the environment by cleaning up polluted land

Contact: Alexis Donath, 651-757-2312

St. Paul, Minn. — For 25 years, Minnesota’s petroleum remediation programs have provided assistance and partial funding for businesses, schools, farmers and homeowners who are responsible for cleaning up property contaminated by petroleum tank leaks.

These leaks are a liability for property owners because they can contaminate drinking water, and under certain conditions, the vapors can enter sewer pipes or buildings, where they can pose a health threat or even cause a deadly explosion.

More than 17,000 sites have been cleaned up since the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Petroleum Remediation Program was established in 1987. Almost 40 percent of the sites being cleaned up today are at small businesses, such as gas stations.

“These days, we get about 400 calls per year reporting contaminated sites, and we finish about 500 cleanups per year,” Michael Kanner, the program’s manager, said. “We’re beating the problem.”

Protecting human health and the environment

State and local officials became concerned in February 2007 after routine well testing in the city of Foley revealed high levels of petroleum contamination. The well was near two properties that once had contained fuel tanks. Over the course of many years, the tanks had leaked into the surrounding soil, and changes in water use patterns caused contaminants to be drawn into the well.

Responding promptly, city managers began working with the MPCA to investigate the contamination and determine how best to protect the town’s water. The MPCA awarded funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help the city install a new well and supply line. Today, Foley’s drinking water is drawn from a well located safely outside of the contaminated area, and experts have determined that the leak no longer presents a hazard to the community.

Creating opportunities for development

As another example, beginning in 1864, Milwaukee Railroad passenger and freight trains traveling from Chicago to the Northern Plains states passed through a station in downtown Minneapolis. Over the course of more than a century, the rail depot became badly contaminated by leaks from petroleum storage tanks. When a development corporation took an interest in redeveloping the property in the late 1990s, it was discovered that the soil at the old rail site had become polluted with some 60,000 gallons of petroleum.

The property owners were able to receive technical and financial assistance in investigating the contamination at the site from the MPCA's Petroleum Remediation and Brownfield Programs. Today, the former railroad station has been refurbished into a gleaming complex known as The Depot Minneapolis, featuring hotels, restaurants and a picturesque ice skating rink in the depot’s old waiting room.

More work to be done

Despite the program’s success, Kanner says there are still more sites to be cleaned up. About 10 percent of these sites are on residential properties, and according to the MPCA, there may still be as many as 100,000 residential tanks in Minnesota.

Since the early 1990s, sellers have been required to inform buyers if they are aware of a petroleum tank on a property. Fuel oil has a strong odor, so indoor leaks are usually evident. It can be more difficult to identify leaking outdoor tanks that are underground.

“If there is or was a heating oil tank on your property, it may have leaked or been overfilled at some point,” Kanner said. “The good news is that Minnesota has one of the better programs in the country to help people clean up these problems. In most cases, Minnesota's Petrofund can offer substantial reimbursement of cleanup costs.”

Reimbursement from the Petrofund, which is administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, is based on the level of remediation necessary to protect human health and the environment for the property’s current use.

If a property owner suspects a tank leak on their property, their first step should be to contact the Minnesota Duty Officer immediately at 800-422-0798.

Once the site has been identified, consultants can be hired to determine the risks present (such as drinking water contamination) and decide which remediation processes are most appropriate. Remediation tactics can include excavating contaminated soil, pumping petroleum out of the ground, or installing additional drinking water protection measures, such as a deeper well or carbon filtration system. The MPCA oversees these efforts and the Petrofund at the Minnesota Department of Commerce reimburses up to 90 percent of eligible investigation and cleanup costs.

Kanner emphasizes that property owners should not be intimidated by the prospect of cleaning up a petroleum-contaminated site: “We’ve dealt with a lot of these. We have a lot of experience, and we can help.”

For more information, visit the MPCA’s Petroleum Remediation Program webpage.

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