More than 35 years after the discovery of a massive diesel spill under downtown Mandan, cleanup is finally done.
“It’s pretty much gone,” said Dave Glatt, director of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. “It seems like a long time, but when you look at, in a downtown area where access is limited, we had 4 to 6 feet on top of the groundwater in some areas. This is a success.”
Over the next few months, the group overseeing the cleanup will begin a decommissioning process that involves plugging 200 remaining wells drilled in downtown Mandan and tearing out the connected piping. One hundred additional wells were shut in recent years.
The wells blanket several blocks in Mandan, ranging from Collins Avenue west to Second Avenue and from Second Street south to the BNSF Railway yard. At least 39 wells are inside the basements of buildings.
The recovery effort collected 770,000 gallons of fuel, Glatt said.
The plume of diesel under the city stemmed from fueling activities at the rail yard as hoses broke and tanks overfilled, said Fritz Schwindt, a former state environmental official and member of the Mandan Remediation Trust, which oversees the cleanup. At the time the spill was discovered in 1984, the rail yard was run by BNSF’s predecessor, the Burlington Northern Railroad.
The railroad has not been involved in the cleanup effort downtown since 2004, when it reached a $30 million settlement with the city and state. Of that amount, $24 million went into the remediation trust, which is overseen by Schwindt, Glatt and City Administrator Jim Neubauer. They outlined the history of the spill and next steps at a public meeting this week.
Over the years, the cleanup prompted significant public interest, Glatt said, but it’s not talked about much anymore outside the circle of people involved in the remediation.
He said that if he were to ask someone walking down Main Street in Mandan what they think of the project, they would “give you that quizzical look, like, what are you talking about?”
“That’s not on their radar screen,” he said. “That’s a good thing. It’s allowed Mandan to move forward."
Cleaning up the plume
Schwindt remembers the call that came to the North Dakota Department of Health in the summer of 1984.
At the time, construction was beginning on the Mandan Law Enforcement Center.
“They were getting diesel fuel smells in the dewatering system,” he said. “That’s where we started from.”
The department, whose environmental health section has since split and is now known as the Department of Environmental Quality, had no money in the budget to further investigate. Schwindt worked for the agency at the time and asked the city to hire a contractor to drill wells to gauge the scope of the diesel plume.
“As we kept drilling further and further south and approached the railroad property, the amount of diesel fuel that we were seeing in those monitoring wells kept getting thicker and thicker,” he said.
The state initially estimated that 200,000 gallons had spilled, according to Tribune archives. Even today, the actual volume is unknown, but it’s likely at least five times that amount, according to Glatt.
He said it “took a little cajoling” to get the railroad to clean up the spill, but it eventually agreed and installed wells to suck up the diesel. Those wells recovered 600,000 gallons by the early 2000s, at which point the railroad backed away from the cleanup effort, he said.
That prompted the state and city to sue, resulting in the settlement agreement. At that point, the remediation trust took over liability of the site and hired the firm Leggette, Brashears and Graham to handle the cleanup, Glatt said.
“It was the single-biggest project LBG ever did,” said Tim Kenyon, who served as project manager and is now retired.
The company came up with a plan to install 300 wells and piping to move whatever remaining fluid and air it could collect to a central building south of Main Street for treatment.
“The single thing that made this such a success was that the community was behind it,” Kenyon said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to get access to all those properties. We wouldn’t have been able to put piping under the streets. We kind of tore the place up for a couple summers.”
The effort by the remediation trust recovered an additional 170,000 gallons of diesel. For several years, officials have said the project is nearing an end. The system today is recovering very little diesel and any risk posed by the spill is gone, Glatt said.
In a statement, BNSF said it met its obligations according to the settlement agreement.
“We work hard to be a good community partner in Mandan where many of our employees and their families work and live,” spokeswoman Amy McBeth said.
No one at the public meeting expressed any concerns about the cleanup effort or decommissioning process, but Glatt said anyone with information the remediation trust should know can email him at email@example.com.
The trust will maintain several monitoring wells at the north border of the rail yard to make sure no more diesel migrates from the site. Glatt does not anticipates any problems. Under the terms of the settlement, BNSF is not required to further clean up the diesel under its property unless it one day abandons the land, he said.
More than $5 million in settlement money remains in the trust. Some of that money will go toward the decommissioning process. Glatt said it’s important to maintain a portion in case of any future cleanup needs. Some of the money could also end up in a separate trust established to pay for reconstruction efforts.
"It was a great project, a great experience, but I never want to do it again," Glatt said.
Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.