Bringing polluted land back to productive use
For 25 years, Minnesota’s petroleum remediation programs have provided assistance and partial funding for businesses, schools, farmers and homeowners responsible for cleaning up property contaminated by leaking petroleum tanks. Petroleum tank 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 be a threat to health or even cause deadly explosions.
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% 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,” says Michael Kanner, the program’s manager. “We’re beating the problem.”
Creating opportunities for urban redevelopment
Beginning in 1864, the Milwaukee Railroad passenger and freight trains traveling from Chicago to the northern plains states passed through a rail 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 on 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, especially if they are underground.
“If there is or was a heating oil tank on your property, it may have leaked or been overfilled at some point,” says Kanner. “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, the Petrofund, which is administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, can offer substantial reimbursement of cleanup costs.” Reimbursement 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 call the Minnesota Duty Officer immediately at 1-800-422-0798.
Once the site has been identified, consultants can be hired to determine what risks are 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 Commerce's Petrofund reimburses up to 90% 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 Petroleum Remediation Program's webpage.
You can also search for information about remediation projects and landfills around Minnesota. What's in My Neighborhood? offers a map or text-based search.