Brought to light: Excavating company’s hidden fuel tank that threatened groundwater

Contact: Cathy Rofshus, 507-206-2608

Fitzgerald Excavating and Trucking in Goodhue must comply with state rules to protect groundwater after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) discovered the company improperly installed an underground fuel tank and went to great lengths to keep it hidden from the agency. Tank regulations help ensure that they are installed and maintained in a manner that protects groundwater used for drinking, along with preventing other harm to the environment.

The company must take several corrective actions and pay an $80,000 penalty to the state, according to a recent agreement with the MPCA.

This company in southeast Minnesota, owned by Jason Fitzgerald, buried a 12,000-gallon tank at its excavation facility north of Goodhue. The company acquired and reinstalled a tank that had been removed from a gas station. The tank, about 30 years old, posed a high risk of leaking and was prohibited from being reused. In violation of state rules, Fitzgerald installed the tank himself instead of using a licensed tank contractor. To keep the tank hidden from the MPCA, Fitzgerald buried the tank and poured a concrete pad over it. He then placed several 1,000-gallon aboveground fuel tanks as decoys on top of the pad. The aboveground tanks were exempt from state rules.

Fitzgerald took several steps to keep the tank and associated equipment a secret. For example, he placed fuel pumps on top the unregulated tanks to make it appear they were being used for fueling. In reality, he was pumping fuel from the hidden underground tank. Fitzgerald also cut holes in the bottoms of the aboveground tanks for fuel pipes down to the 12,000-gallon tank. The tank fill pipes were concealed inside a modified toolbox sitting on the concrete pad, and the tank vent pipes were disguised to look like support posts for the awning over the fuel tanks. 

The hidden tank lacked leak detection equipment, secondary containment for spills, corrosion protection, overfill protection, and spill prevention equipment. All these protections are critical to prevent releases. Despite several MPCA notices to use an MPCA-certified tank contactor to remove the tank, Fitzgerald removed the tank himself and disposed of it without following state rules designed to prevent soil contamination, safety issues, and other problems.

In addition, Fitzgerald gave vague and conflicting statements to state inspectors concerning his fueling practices, where the tank came from, who installed the tank, and how the tank was disposed of once it was removed.

Fitzgerald was also cited for air quality and solid waste violations after inspectors found burn piles containing tires, plastics and other materials that cause excessive or noxious smoke. Large piles of tires and solid waste were also found at the facility near Goodhue.

Corrective actions include:

  • Submit proper notification for the underground tank.
  • Properly dispose of ash and solid waste stored at the Goodhue facility.
  • Stop storing, disposing of, and burning waste materials.
  • Submit a plan for managing waste to the MPCA for approval.

Stipulation agreements are one tool that the MPCA uses to achieve compliance with environmental laws.  When calculating penalties, the MPCA takes into account how seriously the violation affected the environment, whether it was a first time or repeat violation, and the severity of the violations. The agency also attempts to recover the calculated economic benefit gained by failure to comply with environmental laws in a timely manner.

This is the third time since 2007 that the MPCA has directed Fitzgerald to take corrective action and pay a penalty for violating solid waste rules. The agency also took enforcement action against the company in 2009 for violating several rules on septic system installation.

The tank violations highlight the potential harm from improperly storing materials in tanks. The MPCA is marking its 50th year as the state’s environmental protection agency. The Minnesota Legislature created the MPCA after Minnesota witnessed two catastrophic spills in 1962. In December of that year, sub-zero temperatures caused a pipeline break at Richards Oil tank facility in Savage. The ruptured line released a million gallons of oil into the Mississippi River. Shortly thereafter, a storage tank at the Honeymead plant in Mankato burst, releasing more than 3 million gallons of soy oil onto the ice of the Minnesota River. Oil from both spills slowly traveled downstream and had a devastating impact on wildlife.

Today in Minnesota, there are about 18,000 regulated underground storage tanks (USTs) in use. The MPCA’s Underground Storage Tank Program helps to prevent contamination from leaking tanks by focusing on technical assistance and compliance.