The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 6, 2013

50 years ago at Mankato soybean plant, a wall of oil

Stan Eichten was working in the office of Honeymead Soybean Products 50 years ago this month when one of the biggest environmental disasters in state history hit.

 “There was a roar, like an explosion,” said Eichten of the rupture of a soy oil storage tank that sent millions of gallons into Mankato streets and the Minnesota River.

“It was almost like a tsunami. There was oil 2 or 3 feet deep all over.”

The spill at the Mankato plant, the largest oil-processing facility in the world, couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Just a month earlier, pipes at an oil plant in Savage had ruptured, sending about 1 million gallons of petroleum oil into the Minnesota River.

When the estimated 2.5 million gallons of soy oil from Mankato made its way down the river the following spring, it mixed with the petroleum oil. As the mass continued into the Mississippi River, it covered ducks and caused outrage among citizens, leading to water protection laws and the start of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Eichten worked at the plant from 1958 to 2000 and was an oil salesman at the time of the spill. He said the force of the oil shoved two rail cars off the tracks and into the Blue Earth River, as oil cascaded onto the frozen river, congealing in the 25-below-zero temperatures.

“It was lucky nobody got killed,” Eichten said. “The whole thing was a long, dragged out deal, with the lawsuits and river problems. It was a lot of bad publicity.” 

A dual disaster

The tank, about 100 feet across and 40 feet high, burst after becoming brittle and expanding in the extreme cold. The force of the oil coming out then took out another storage tank. A total of 3.5 million gallons spilled, covering streets and filling garages in a several-block area near the entrance to Sibley Park.

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