CARSON CITY — The 65-year environmental cleanup at the former Crystal Refinery in Carson City will enter a new phase next month.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) plans to test some new technology by drilling new monitoring wells in the Carson City Cemetery, located next to the former refinery.
The agency has hired a consultant to solicit bids for installing four to six wells in the cemetery and pumping out oil, contaminated groundwater and vapors to see what works best.
“We’re going to do some experimenting that has been real successful at sites around the country. Once we do the testing we’ll be able to determine whether it will work,” said Dave Monet, an environmental quality manager with the DEQ’s Remediation Division in Grand Rapids.
Gary Sweet is a member of the board that manages the cemetery. He said gravesites, which date back to the 1860s before Carson City was founded, are not affected by the contamination and will not be touched with the new work planned.
Sweet, who worked in the cemetery during high school, said the board is satisfied the DEQ representative working with it is taking the necessary steps to clean up the contamination and maintain the integrity of the graves.
“He’s doing what we ask him to do and we trust him that he won’t disturb the gravesites and we’ll be able to clean up the oil,” Sweet said of the DEQ official. “So far we’ve been able to maintain both of those objectives.”
Decades of contamination
The contamination has been underground for at least 65 years.
The Crystal Refining Co. began operating at 801 N. Williams St. in 1935.
The facility processed crude oil, averaging about 84,000 gallons per day. Oil arrived on the site in underground pipelines and in railroad cars.
The refinery had about 10 million gallons of oil in storage above and below ground. New tanks were added in the 1950s and 1960s to increase storage to about 12 million gallons.
In 1945 — 10 years after the refinery began operating — the Michigan Department of Conservation (now the DEQ and Department of Natural Resources) noted it found oil in Fish Creek, which is located on the east side of the refinery. Records are not clear on what, if any, action the agency took.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources conducted a more thorough investigation of the 32.5-acre site in 1968. Twenty-two test wells drilled on and off the site determined how far the contamination had spread.
The wells uncovered widespread water contamination all over the property, north into the cemetery and south into a wooded area. A heavy oil slick covered the headwaters of Fish Creek.
Monet said the refinery operators installed trenches next to the creek to capture any oil before it got to the waterway. The oil collected in the trenches got pumped back onto the property, where it was reprocessed.
4 million gallons of oil
A fractured check valve on an incoming oil line allowed 80,000 gallons of oil to flow over frozen ground in January 1973. Some of the oil entered Fish Creek while some stayed on site.
The Department of Natural Resources required the refinery to conduct an extensive environmental investigation in the early 1980s. The results revealed up to 4 million gallons of oil underground, 117,000 cubic yards of soil “seriously impacted” and 86,000 cubic yards of soil “marginally impacted.”
Monet said the contamination likely was the result of spills during deliveries, refining operations, pipe leaks and tank leaks.
“It could have been all of that stuff,” he said. “It’s impossible to determine the cause of all the contamination.”
The refinery installed purge wells in 1983 to pump contaminated water to the surface so it could be skimmed, sent to a separator and treated.
EPA steps in
The refinery shut down in the early 1990s but the Crystal Refining Co. continued operating the various cleanup systems in place on the site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site in 1998 based on concerns that the company couldn’t afford to pay for the cleanup much longer.
The EPA began a more aggressive cleanup by removing all of the aboveground storage tanks, pipes, water treatment lagoons and visibly contaminated soil. The agency installed an advanced underground oil recovery system and turned over operations to the DEQ, which is still operating it.
Monet said the current system includes equipment underground in the place where the oil contamination mixes with the natural groundwater aquifer. It captures the oil and pumps it to the surface, where it can treated and safely disposed.
The system the DEQ plans to test will enhance that to hopefully bring more oil to the surface in less time.
Never completely gone
Monet said the contamination is being cleaned up slowly.
“Things are improving as we’ve been working on it,” he said. “There’s a significant amount of (oil) in place. We’re trying to do the best we can to get it out.”
However, Monet said the site likely will be contaminated forever.
“Environmental contamination is really very difficult to completely eliminate,” he said.
Monet said the state’s goal is to reduce risks on the property by removing as much oil from the ground as possible. The rest will be covered and contained.
He said the property could be redeveloped someday, likely with permanent restrictions on its use so the contamination that remains underground is not disturbed.