Four cities to test wells after audit raises pollution concerns

Four Minnesota cities will undertake independent investigations of their drinking water supplies after a campaign by a former state employee and an ensuing audit raised concerns about how the state cleans up pollution from thousands of petroleum spills.

The Legislature gave $200,000 to the central Minnesota city of Paynesville, which will hire a firm and work with the cities of Alexandria, Blaine and Foley to test the sites of four known petroleum leaks. The tests will determine the risk in drinking the water to better understand whether the cities should dig up and remove the contaminated soil or leave it to break down naturally, as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has directed.

“It seems like the simplest way to do this is to excavate the site, clean it up and get it all out,” Paynesville Mayor Shawn Reinke said. “We excavated some of it, but we’ve had constant pushback over the years from the MPCA, saying ‘No, no, no, that’s not the right way to do it.'” “

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

“We have early warning detection systems in place and we will know if the contamination is moving,” said Jamie Wallerstedt, director of the MPCA’s remediation division. “We are confident the plume is stable, and we are going to continue monitoring it.”

The MPCA’s petroleum remediation program was first called into question in November, when longtime MPCA employee Mark Toso sued the agency, saying 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 he resigned in 2021, said the agency routinely classified leaks that posed a high risk to public health and drinking water as low risk. The “low-risk” design allowed the MPCA to shift from cleaning leak sites to moving drinking wells away from the contamination and waiting for it to naturally biodegrade, which could take more than a century, Toso argued in his lawsuit.

But while the drinking wells may be moved to draw clean water, that process ignores the risk that the contamination still poses to public, he said — especially if the site is redeveloped in the future, or a new private well is drilled, or if the contamination plume shifts and spreads. The MPCA has closed about 5,000 cases of gasoline leaks from storage tanks across the state.

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

Paynesville’s leak, from underground storage tanks at a former gas station, occurred in the 1980s. The leaky tanks and some of the 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 dug a series of monitoring wells to keep track of the contamination. In 2014, benzene — a carcinogen released from the leaded gasoline leak — was detected about 1,000 feet from where the city is currently drawing its drinking water. Lawmakers gave Paynesville nearly $2 million that year to upgrade its water treatment plant to remove benzene and similar chemicals. No detections have happened since, Wallerstedt said.

Toso said in his suit that he and other remediation scientists argued to MPCA managers for years that the Paynesville site needed to be excavated, as well as sites with similar leaks in Alexandria, Blaine and Foley. Paynesville officials also asked for a more complete excavation, and were frustrated when the MPCA disagreed.

“They told us any number of things for why they weren’t going to excavate, that it was too expensive, that it would disturb homeowners, that a school is two blocks away and you don’t want kids dealing with the dust,” Reinke said. “It seemed like a new excuse depending on the day.”

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

The Office of the Legislative Auditor looked into the MPCA’s petroleum remediation program following the suit. The audit, released in February, found several issues and said the agency “largely does not consider how a property may be used in the future” when deciding if or how to address a petroleum leak.

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

The MCPA has no way to discipline consultants who do a poor job. Consultants must be registered by the state Petrofund Board, an arm of the Department of Commerce, but registration requirements are minimal and don’t include any technical or expertise qualifications, auditors said.

In response to the audit, MPCA officials said they will work to better incorporate potential future development into their risk assessment investigations. They said they were talking with the Commerce Department about ways to increase accountability and transparency with the consultants who investigate leaks.

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

“We stand by quality of our decisions,” she said.

Reinke said he isn’t sure when the new testing will be completed. He said he hopes it brings residents and city officials peace of mind.

“We know our drinking water is safe right now,” he said. “It’s regularly tested and independent tests have all come back good. But we want to make sure in 20 years, 50 years and 100 years it’s still going to be safe or if we’ll just be dealing with all of this again.”

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