AUSTIN — A prairie is blooming on a former hazardous waste site in Austin.

The gas manufacturing plant in Austin next to the Cedar River closed more than 85 years ago, but its environmental impact is still ongoing. However, this year, the site where it sat no longer looks like a hazardous waste site.

As recent as 2017, petroleum products left over from Austin Gas Co. were still seeping into the river from the river bed.

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Volunteers cleaning up litter from the river that year said they saw what looked like motor oil bubbling into the water.

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“This is pollution that’s over a century old, and it can still come back to haunt us,” said Tim Ruzek, outreach coordinator for the Cedar River Watershed District.

Ruzek uses the plant site as an example of the long-term effects of pollution when he makes classroom visits.

Austin Gas Co. operated from 1905 to 1935, distilling cooking and heating gas from coal. The process created waste oils and residue that were simply dumped into the river. This wasn’t an uncommon practice. However, Austin Gas Co.’s waste was apparently so egregious that in 1928, Jay C. Hormel, whose company also used the river to deposit waste, helped lead a public push to get the gas company to help clean up the river.

When natural gas service was piped to Austin in the 1930s, the gas manufacturing plant closed. However, its waste remained in the soil and river.

Workers contracted by Minnesota Energy Resources remove contaminated soil in the Cedar River in Austin in 2019.
Workers contracted by Minnesota Energy Resources remove contaminated soil in the Cedar River in Austin in 2019.

It’s been a long road to get to a blooming prairie on the site.

Other businesses occupied the 5-acre site until flooding in 2004. In 2006, the last buildings were demolished on the site, and more than 31,000 tons of contaminated soil were removed. Wells were installed to burn off contamination.

In 2015, Minnesota Energy Resources acquired the land in its purchase of Interstate Power & Light Company’s natural gas facilities and properties.

After the active oil seeps were found in 2017, Minnesota Energy Resources redoubled efforts to clean the site. The company posted signs warning of contamination and took equipment directly into the river to remove contaminated river bottom soil and sediment.

In 2018, Minnesota Energy Resources removed another 20,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site and replaced it with clean fill covered by topsoil. Then, through last year, they removed 6,900 tons of sediment from the river and river shoreline — digging 4 feet into the river bed.

An undated photo of the Austin Gas Co. plant.
An undated photo of the Austin Gas Co. plant.

The area looked like a hazardous work zone — which it was, Ruzek said.

This spring, the signs were removed and prairie plants were planted along the river. A gravel path allows people to walk through the site.

“It’s nice to see it coming together,” he said.

John Molseed is a tree-hugging Minnesota transplant making his way through his state parks passport. This column is a space for stories of people doing their part (and more) to keep Minnesota green. Send questions, comments and suggestions to life@postbulletin.com.