ORONOCO — On June 28, as floodwaters washed down rivers all across southeastern Minnesota, Terry Leary watched the rising waters of the Middle Fork Zumbro River sweep through Oronoco.
The river, which sweeps into town as its branches meet in the new park where Lake Shady used to rest, had risen out of its banks, flooding low-lying areas. One of those areas is the former used car parts lot known as Oronoco Auto Parts.
"The road was under 5 feet of water," Leary said. "I observed more than 50 tires going down the river and a huge oil-and-gas slick."
Car parts could be found along the road and hanging from branches of trees. A 55-gallon plastic drum labeled "bad gas" was found down the road once the floodwaters retreated.
"After the last flood in 2010, the MPCA said they'd clean up the river," Leary said. "But nothing's been done to clean up the cars and the car parts. Every time it floods, it floods there."
A little history
For years, Oronoco Auto Parts was one of those junkyards where you can get a used part for your old car, get used tires that still had good tread or sell your own junker for someone else to pick off the pieces that were still useful.
According to Jean Myhre, who lives less than a block away, sometime around the summer or early fall of 2017 the business changed from selling used parts and tires to becoming a scrap yard. She said every day she could hear metal being crushed to scrap to be hauled away and sold.
During Gold Rush Days that summer, a furnace for melting metal was installed in one of the business' buildings across the street, much to the concern of neighbors. Those neighbors fought the smelter.
Since then, said Brandon Evans, who lives across the street from the smelter and next door to the scrap yard, once the smelter plans were thwarted, the activity at the site dropped.
"I haven't seen much traffic over there," Evans said. "Maybe a couple of times a month for an hour or two. It doesn’t look like they’re doing much."
Hidden piles of parts
The business is surrounded by a tall fence, hiding the piles of tires, car parts and basic junk out in the yard. But that all changed with the flood waters.
On June 28 as the floodwaters jumped the banks of the Middle Fork Zumbro River through Oronoco, some of that fencing came down or was overwhelmed. Downstream — down the street — junk from Oronoco Auto Parts could be found floating away. And when the floodwaters receded, that junk was scattered about, if not carried 3 miles downriver to Lake Zumbro.
"I noticed a really strong smell of gas," Evans said. "It was overwhelming the further you went down the road there. The smell was overwhelming."
According to city maps, a large portion of the scrap yard lies within the floodway of the river.
This, Leary said, is an unacceptable situation.
Seeing the mess made between the intersection of water and car parts, she called a variety of state and local officials asking for something to be done. She called the Oronoco Township Board of Supervisors, Olmsted County Emergency Management and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as well as other county and state officials.
Mike Bromberg, Olmsted County Emergency Management director, said once the floodwaters receded, the problem of cleanup and enforcement belongs to the MPCA or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
MPCA spokeswoman Cathy Rofshus said the county is working to determine "ownership of the property and (the) party responsible for site maintenance."
According to the MPCA, which fined the owner with an "Administrative Penalty Order" on June 6, 2018, the CEO of Oronoco Auto Parts is Clyde Payne, whose St. Paul business address is the same as Crosstown Auto, a used parts and salvage business in the Twin Cities.
However, both numbers for Crosstown Auto have been disconnected or are no longer in service, and attempts to reach Payne were unsuccessful.
Neil Stolp, an Oronoco Township Board supervisor, said the issue, which was brought up during the public comment period of the July 1 board of supervisors meeting, will likely become an agenda item on either the July 15 special board meeting or during the August meeting.
"We're going to set something up," Stolp said. "We're moving forward."
Evans, who spent nearly a year fighting the smelter at the scrap yard, said the pollution from the flooding is yet another reason the the business causes concern.
"I guarantee you, there’s a ton of stuff in the river," Evans said.