Drone - Oronoco Auto Parts

Oronoco Auto Parts sits along the Middle Fork Zumbro River in Oronoco Township. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

ORONOCO — Tammy Matzke hopes folks from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are prepared to listen. 

"There's normal debris and there's absolute pollution," Matzke said Monday night at Oronoco City Hall. "And that's what we're seeing from Oronoco Auto Parts."

More than two weeks after floodwaters washed into the former auto salvage yard and swept debris downriver toward Lake Zumbro, Matzke said the mess is still there. 

"The PCA said it would dissipate in a couple of weeks off everyone's concrete docks," she said. "Nope, not yet."  

Matzke, a member of the Lake Zumbro Improvement Association, was one of several people who spoke during an Oronoco Township Board meeting Monday night. 

Terry Leary, who lives just downriver and across the road from the salvage yard, retold her story from the weekend of the flood. "I stood watching the river coming up and in 20 minutes counted 50 tires go by," Leary said. 

Board Chairman Neil Stolp asked Leary, who he said has "taken point" on the citizens' concerns for the flooding event and the resulting pollution that many blame on the salvage yard, to update attendees at the meeting on her efforts to get state officials to look at the mess that resulted after the flooding both June 27-28 and again a week later on July 6.

During the second flooding event, Leary said the salvage yard was "half underwater" from the rising Zumbro River. 

"After the flood in 2010, we were told they'd clean it up," Leary said. "That hasn't happened."

What has changed, she said, is the nature of the business. Around 2015 or so, she said, it stopped being a place to purchase used car parts and became a scrap metal yard where piles of old auto parts were brought to be crushed and, as the plan developed, melted.

Matzke said every time there is a flooding event, tires and oil slicks come down the river toward Lake Zumbro. 

In 2017, the owners of the business moved metal smelting equipment into one of its buildings on city property. However, the city and the township – along with dozens of concerned citizens – rallied against that move and the smelter was never made operational. 

Now, piles of tires, metal, plastic and rubber car parts and drums of automotive fluid reside on the premises, Leary said. 

Leary and Township Supervisor Charlie Lacy said they toured the site with the owner, Clyde Payne, last week. Members of the MPCA and other state agencies were present as well, she said.

Since then, the MPCA has begun an enforcement investigation against Oronoco Auto Parts Stolp said.

Cathy Rofshus, a spokeswoman with the MPCA confirmed the investigation but added that the agency cannot comment further until the investigation is complete.

Stolp encouraged residents at the meeting to attend the township board's next monthly meeting in Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will include representatives from state agencies such as the MPCA and the Department of Natural Resources as well as state Sen. Dave Senjem and perhaps other lawmakers. 

For Matzke, the sooner something is done to clean the site and prevent further contamination of the Zumbro River, Lake Zumbro and the land along the way, the better. 

"It was like an oil slick and it smelled so bad," she said.

She added that individuals who went into the water to retrieve boats, jet skis and other property came out of the water with an oily film on their skin that would not come off. That same oily film left a coating on debris along the high-water marks of the floodwaters. 

Lacy said he is grateful for the work of Olmsted County officials, who last year worked with the owners of the site to move some of the items from lower ground to higher ground away from the river at the salvage yard site. 

"If it hadn’t been for what they did last year, this could have been worse," Lacy said. 

"We've got people who love to swim in our water," Matzke said. "We want our water safe for the people who love to use the water and for generations to come."

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