Four cities to test wells after audit raise pollution fears

Four Minnesota cities will conduct independent investigations into their drinking water supplies after a lawsuit was filed by a former government employee and the ensuing scrutiny raised concerns about how the state could clean up pollution from thousands of oil spills.

The legislature awarded $200,000 to the central Minnesota city of Paynesville, which will hire a company and work with the cities of Alexandria, Blaine, and Foley to test the sites of four known oil spills. The tests will determine the risks in drinking water to better understand whether cities should dig up and remove contaminated soil or let it decompose naturally, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has instructed.

“It seems like the simplest way to do that is to dig up the site and clean it up and get everything out,” said Baynesville Mayor Sean Rink. “We dug up some of it, but we’ve faced constant opposition over the years from the MPCA, saying ‘No, no, no, that’s not the right way to do it. “”

MPCA officials said they have tested the quality of drinking water around the leak sites for years and are confident the water is clean and safe.

“We have early warning detection systems in place and we’ll know if the contamination is moving,” said Jamie Wallerstedt, MPCA’s director of treatment. “We are confident of the shaft’s stability, and we will continue to monitor it.”

The MPCA Petroleum Processing Program was first brought into question in November, when longtime MPCA employee Mark Tossauds lawsuit The agency said the managers retaliated against him for raising concerns that they were improperly closing cases.

Toso, a leaded gasoline expert who worked in the agency’s remediation division from 1992 until his resignation in 2021, said the agency routinely classifies leaks that pose a significant public health risk and drinking water as low risk. In his lawsuit, Tussaud argued that the “low risk” rating allowed the MPCA to go from cleaning up spill sites to moving drinking wells away from pollution and waiting for them to decompose naturally, which could take more than a century.

While drinking wells may be moved to draw clean water, he said, this process ignores the risk of continued contamination to the public — particularly if the site is redeveloped in the future, or a new private well is drilled, or if a new private well is drilled. The pollution plume spreads and spreads. The MPCA has closed about 5,000 cases of gasoline leaking from storage tanks across the state.

Tussaud’s lawsuit is still pending and the two sides are scheduled to meet for a mediation session in August.

The Paynesville leak, from the underground storage tanks of a former gas station, happened in the 1980s. Leaking tanks and some soil around them were removed, but the contamination spread and reached two of the city’s four wells in 1997. Both had to be closed and replaced.

The MPCA has drilled a series of monitoring wells to track the contamination. In 2014, benzene – a carcinogen released from a leak of leaded gasoline – was discovered about 1,000 feet from where the city is currently withdrawing its drinking water. Lawmakers awarded Paynesville nearly $2 million that year to modernize a water treatment plant to remove gasoline and similar chemicals. Wallersted said no observations had taken place since then.

In his lawsuit, Tussaud said he and other treatment scientists have argued for years with MPCA directors that the Paynesville site needs to be excavated, as do sites with similar leaks in Alexandria, Blaine and Foley. Paynesville officials also requested a more complete excavation, and were frustrated when the MPCA disagreed.

“They told us about any number of things about why they wouldn’t excavate, that it was too expensive, that it would annoy the homeowners, that the school was two blocks away and that you didn’t want the kids to deal with dust,” Reinke said. “It seemed like a new excuse as of today.”

After reading Toso’s lawsuit, city officials decided they wanted an independent test.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office looked into the MPCA’s petroleum processing program after the lawsuit. auditreleased in February, found several issues and said the agency “does not consider much how the property will be used in the future” when deciding whether or how to address the oil spill.

It also found that the MPCA relies on consultants – often hired by polluters – to investigate leaks and recommend clean-up actions. While the MPCA reviews their work and ultimately decides what actions to take, the quality of investigations can vary widely, staff members told the review.

The MCPA has no way of disciplining consultants who do a bad job. The auditors said the consultants must be registered by the state Petrofund Board, an arm of the Commerce Department, but that registration requirements are minimal and do not include any technical qualifications or experience.

In response to the review, MPCA officials said they would work to better integrate potential future development into their risk assessment investigations. They said they are talking with the Commerce Department about ways to increase accountability and transparency with advisors investigating the leaks.

But the agency has always been and will always make sure that any consultant’s work meets MPCA standards, Wallerstedt said.

“We stick to the quality of our decisions,” she said.

Reinke said he is not sure when the new test will be completed. He said he hopes it will bring peace of mind to residents and city officials.

“We know our drinking water is safe now,” he said. “They’ve been tested regularly and all the independent tests have come back fine. But we want to make sure in 20 years, 50 years and 100 years it will still be safe or if we’re going to deal with all of this again.”