An Elgin gas station leaked 10,000 gallons of gasoline. Now the state is suing the owner
Officials are still monitoring a gas plume in the groundwater that remains a threat to public health
ELGIN, Minn. — A monthslong petroleum leak at a Cenex gas station in Elgin last year resulted in 10,000 gallons of gasoline spilling into the environment, threatening drinking water and creating an unstable gasoline plume within the groundwater that officials are still grappling with.
This week, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency filed a lawsuit against the company, Gurek Inc., and its owner, Tejinder Singh, to reclaim the costs associated with its investigations and cleanup actions. Specifically, it accuses Gurek of knowingly bypassing safety protocols that, if followed, would have prevented the leak from happening.
An MPCA official estimated the agency has spent more than $1.1 million in cleanup costs so far. That figure does not account for the work MPCA employees have done within the past year, said Darin Broton, MPCA director of external affairs. He described the $1.1 million paid so far as “out-of-pocket costs” paid to contractors and environmental consultants to remove soil, remove tanks, and conduct water and soil tests.
The Cenex station is the lone gas station for this southeast Minnesota community of 1,100 people, 21 miles northwest of Rochester. Early on, Singh told a state contractor that he did not have the money to pay for the emergency work, according to court filings. Broton said the City of Elgin provided a $20,000 loan to the owner to replace the underground fuel tanks. The station remains open.
“When we have fuel leaks of this magnitude, it is a big deal for a community like Elgin, because it impacts residents, their drinking water, and their quality of life,” Broton said.
Officials say the station had safety equipment designed to alert employees of a leak. The system is used to detect leaks and perform shutdowns if leaks are detected. In January 2022, the safety system shut down the regular unleaded pump because the pump failed to get a passing leak result in the past 30 days, according to court documents.
In response, someone at the Cenex station kept hitting the reset button on the safety panel so that the regular unleaded fuel line could still be used and fuel could be sold.
Officials aren’t 100% certain when the leak began, but they suspect it was sometime in January 2022. What they are more certain of is that the petroleum leak occurred over a 41-day period at a minimum, because “they kept hitting the reset button.”
Officials say the leak from two fuel pipes — one the size of a dime — occurred at a rate of 3 gallons of gasoline per hour. Escaped fuel flowed into city water supply lines and Elgin’s storm sewer system that leads to a nearby trout stream. State agencies do not believe any fish were killed during the leak.
On March 28, 2022, three months after the petroleum leak is believed to have occurred, Elgin city officials received a complaint from an individual about a gasoline odor emanating from a storm sewer near the gas station.
The drinking water of an undetermined number of residents was found to be contaminated at levels above health standards. Those residents were provided with bottled water and/or water filtration.
“When the initial leak happened, we were dealing with an apartment building and a single-family home that were closest to the gas station,” Broton said.
Officials continue to track a large and unstable concentration of gasoline within the groundwater that remains an ongoing public health concern. The plume has the capacity to move and expand as seasonal ground levels change in ways that can put groundwater and surface water at risk. The plume could put additional homes at risk and expose residents to vapors that if inhaled can cause respiratory issues.
“We just want to make sure that people understand the magnitude of this and what they should be looking for,” Broton said.
“The plume can also generate vapor intrusion, where chemical vapors from gasoline migrate from groundwater through the soil into basements and foundations,” an MPCA statement said. “The MPCA continues monthly vapor monitoring in the storm and sanitary sewer systems. Vapor concerns have not been identified at this time.”
Singh, owner of Gurek Inc., the company that owns the Cenex station, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Elgin Mayor Tim Broadwater referred a PB reporter to Elgin’s website for a statement that in part reads: “The City of Elgin is committed to restoring the safety and health of our land and people back to Elgin standards. To that extent, the city is working diligently with the MPCA in remediating the side effects of this leak.”
MPCA officials say that some 4,500 gallons of leaked gasoline have been recovered at the site and more than 3,000 tons of soil have been removed. Water lines near the contaminated area have been compromised and will require repair, likely sometime later this year.
Drinking water sampling continues under the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health.
The MPCA sent a news release and held a news conference about the petroleum leak Thursday, a day after filing a civil suit against Gurek.
“We thought it was extremely important for us to add a whole new level of transparency and daylight to it,” Broton said.