ORONOCO — Two months later, there's still a big mess along the Zumbro River downstream of Oronoco Auto Parts.

On June 28 and July 5, heavy rains caused the Zumbro River to swell out of its banks and, among other places, into the yard of the former salvage yard located just outside the city of Oronoco on the town's east side. 

Since then, township residents have filed complaints with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the agency has begun investigating the business for possible pollution violations, and the mess that left the junkyard, floating downstream, is still largely scattered along the floodplain. 

"This is the part of the river where the water slows down, so everything in the water just goes clunk and comes out," said Tammy Matzke, a township resident who lives about three miles downstream from the salvage yard.

Tires, Tires, Tires

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Tim Hovel, another Oronoco Township resident, who lives about two miles downstream from the auto junkyard, said after the flooding he took a camera to document items on his land that likely came from Oronoco Auto Parts -- gas tanks, foam inserts for door panels and bumpers, bumper covers -- and ended up with well over a hundred photos, many with multiple items. Eventually, he simply gave up trying to count the tires, many with rims still inside the rubber.

Along with the car debris, the flooding also washed more traditional things downstream, like mud, trees and branches, and sand. Hovel's land, which can be hard to access on the south side of the river because he must cross a neighbor's land to get there, is covered with piles of mud and brush, often with car parts scattered around them. What's underneath these piles is anyone's guess, Hovel said. 

"You take an excavator to these, and there's no telling what you'll find," Hovel said. 

Of course, with neighbors reporting barrels full of old gasoline drained from cars and a broken, empty barrel on Hovel's own land, trying to dig into those piles could be an environmental mistake.

Clean Up Efforts

John and Maxine Trolander, neighbors to Matzke in the small neighborhood where the river bends before turning north to Lake Zumbro, have already dug out the piles of sand that washed up in the flooding. They've also managed to drag most of the auto parts out of the flood plain portion of their backyard. But a tractor tire remains where the river put it. 

Maxine Trolander said the tire will likely need to be moved with a small construction vehicle like a skid loader. "It's heavy," she said. 

She still has several car parts piled at her home, waiting for a promise from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to help clean up the area. Several residents have said they've heard through the grapevine that the MPCA will set up a dumpster site and residents who live along the river will get a notice that can be used to gain admittance to the dumpsters. The MPCA doesn't want people just bringing old trash from their garage. 

Terry Leary, who has been one of the more vocal neighbors, said she understands the MPCA trying to limit the access to people with flood trash from the auto salvage yard, but looking at neighbors like Hovel, she wonders if one date within the next few weeks will be enough. 

"Tim can't clear out his place by then," she said. "There's no telling what's under those piles."

Taking This Seriously

Jason Hawksford, a hazardous waste compliance officer with the MPCA, said that since an Oronoco Township Board meeting in early August, he's spent at least part of every day working on the Oronoco Auto Parts complaints. But enforcement and action take time, he said. 

"If we're able to substantiate the complaint, we'll pursue some level of enforcement," Hawksford said. "Right now, we really can't give you a timeline. We're working as diligently as possible to get that ball rolling."

The key, he said, is to make sure whatever enforcement the agency might hand down to Oronoco Auto Parts and its owners, that enforcement action is defensible and will stand up in court. 

In the meantime, the agency is in regular contact with the salvage yard's owners, trying to get them to clean up the site – what neighbors downstream claim is the source of pollution on their land – at last above ground.

For those neighbors, it's about time. 

John Trolander said he and his wife moved into the area along the bend in the river 30 years ago, the first home in the neighborhood.

"We found a lot of tires on the property," he said. "We piled them up and the DNR came and picked them up."