MANKATO (AP) -- When a wave of soybean oil gushed from a ruptured Honeymead tank in Mankato nearly four decades ago, it created an environmental disaster. But it also helped spur the environmental movement in the state and the creation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
''It was a pivotal event in Minnesota environmentalism,'' said MPCA emergency response supervisor Stephen Lee, who is writing a magazine article about the spill. The spill is also included in a book being published by the MPCA this summer.
The gooey Honeymead oil, mixing with diesel oil from another spill in Savage that winter, eventually flowed to the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin in the spring.
It was then state residents saw the horrendous environmental toll the pollution had taken. Gov. Carl Rolvaag declared a state of emergency as National Guardsmen and volunteers tried to recover oil and to save thousands of waterfowl that became covered with oil.
In the next few years following the disaster, the Legislature passed some of the first pollution laws in the state and formed the MPCA.
''Before this time there was really no thought of pollution in water. People were only worried about typhoid and keeping the water clean enough to drink without getting sick,'' Lee said. ''The concept of environmental pollution just wasn't on the radar screen.''
The spill occurred on the blistering-cold morning of Jan. 23, 1963. About 3.5 million gallons of crude soybean oil were unleashed when a 40-foot tall, 100-foot diameter steel tank ruptured in 20-below-zero cold.
The gush of oil injured one man, swept two nearby loaded railroad cars into the Blue Earth River and flooded streets in a four-block area. Harold Hartwell, who was a worker at the plant, remembers the day well.
''I was about 15 feet from the tank. It didn't make any noise or warning. It was just like it exploded. I took off running like a scalded dog,'' said Hartwell, a resident of Mankato.
Evelyn Herman of North Mankato lived in the house closest to Honeymead at the time, on the now vacated Given Street.
''I looked out the window and there was a big splash of yellow that pushed a railroad car right off the tracks,'' she said. ''At first I thought it was a fire, but it was just this big splash of oil.''
When the oil found its way into sewage pipes, the city was forced to let raw sewage from the western end of the city flow directly into the Minnesota River.
As cleanup got under way, the city and Honeymead made a decision that would have terrible repercussions: Workers used road graders and front-end loaders to push the oil into the river. The convenient disposal method was halted only after the state health department ordered an end to it.
Still, nearly half the 3.5 million gallons of oil got in the river. And even much of the oil that was recovered eventually ended up in the river. The recovered oil and debris were hauled to a ravine east of Rapidan and dumped. When spring came, the oil would wash into the river.
''That was what you did then, you pushed it off the road and into the river and it went away,'' Lee said. ''That was the concept at the time, that the river took it away, and it wasn't a problem.''
While the Honeymead spill was being dealt with, another disaster downriver was unfolding. A month before the Honeymead accident, a pipe at the Richards Oil Co. in Savage broke, releasing 1 million gallons of diesel oil into the Minnesota River. The company never said a word about the spill, and later, after people began seeing oil slicks on the river, company officials continued to deny anything had happened at their plant.
The extent of the damage from the two spills became evident as the harsh winter gave way to spring. When the river opened, the Honeymead oil swept toward the Twin Cities and the Mississippi River, mixing with the diesel oil along the way. While the diesel oil was part of the coming disaster, it was the thick soybean oil that caused most of the problems -- much of the lighter diesel oil had evaporated.
''The soybean oil was thick -- it became almost like a shellac,'' Lee said.
The first signs of a wildlife disaster was stumbled upon by two high school kids -- Dave Johnson and Pat O'Brien -- who were poking around by the river in St. Peter in early spring.
''We found some wood ducks that couldn't fly,'' said Johnson, a resident of St. Peter. ''There were about a dozen of them. We thought they were crippled or something, but then we saw they were covered in oil.''
On April 1, just a week after being sworn in as governor because of a long recount process, Gov. Rolvaag declared a state of emergency and ordered government agencies to help rescue and rehabilitate ducks that had become covered in oil. Some 10,000 ducks were thought to have died or been disabled.
But the futility of the effort soon became apparent. Ducks who were cleaned in massive ''duck laundries'' were usually beyond saving. And attempts to skim the oil with floating sweepers made of logs and barrels showed little success. The soybean oil continued downriver and oil was eventually detected as far south as Illinois.
Today, a similar accident would have had dramatically different results. For starters, storage tanks have strict design and safeguard requirements, are inspected and are required to have dike systems around them to contain spills. Oil that might get into the river would be recovered with floating booms that direct the oil to shore where it can be pumped out, or by using oil-absorbent material. Ground tainted with oil would be treated as hazardous waste that could be disposed of only at licensed landfills. And recovered oil would be recycled or disposed of as hazardous waste.
''The fallout of all this was that state government realized there needed to be environmental protection,'' Lee said.
Public outcry over the spills did lead to changes. The Legislature passed laws requiring companies to build containment structures around oil tanks and required immediate reporting of oil spills.
And in 1965 the Legislature debated forming a new agency to deal with pollution matters. The idea failed that year, but was approved in 1967, creating the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
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