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.
Employee Harvey “Choppy” Fortney was driving a truck in the yard when the tank burst. He watched a 30-foot-high wall of yellow oil coming toward him and thought it was fire. The oil, carrying another tank trailer, slammed Fortney’s truck into a pile of beams, knocking him unconscious. The semi-conscious, oil-covered Fortney slipped from rescuers hands several times before being pulled to safety. He received relatively minor injuries.
Meanwhile, downriver in Savage, another disaster was quietly playing out.
In December 1962, workers at the Richards Oil Plant in Savage forgot to open steam lines that heated oil pipes at the plant. The pipes burst spilling 1 million gallons of petroleum into the Minnesota River. They told no one.
By late January 1963, the state had traced downstream oil back to Richards Oil, which claimed only a small leak had occurred. Lacking a public health emergency, the Department of Health was unable to take any action, and Richards continued to drain oil until March — just as Mankato’s soy oil was arriving downriver in the spring thaw.
State health officials lacked even the power to inspect the sites of the spills without permission from Honeymead and Richards — permission they didn’t grant until several months later.
Operation Save a Duck
Dick Kruger, a retired Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Mankato, said there was little understanding that winter about the environmental catastrophe that was building.
The city and Honeymead officials exacerbated the problem by using graders and snowplows to push the soy oil off area streets into the Blue Earth River. “They even took oil out in trucks and then put it in a ravine by the Le Sueur River. That spring it thawed and flowed down into the Le Sueur River,” Kruger said.
Kruger and others were mostly worried about what the oil would do to fish in the spring. “No one realized it was going to flow that far in the spring. In March and April the migration of waterfowl was taking place. They’d land in the oil and get coated.”
Kruger and other officers were sent to the Mississippi River between Hastings and Red Wing where oil flowing into marshland was causing the biggest problems for ducks. They were joined by U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials and by National Guard troops called in after Gov. Karl Rolvaag declared a state of emergency.
“We’d try to catch ducks on shore and they’d flop out into the river and just sink in the oil. We had piles of dead ducks,” Kruger said.
In what became known as Operation Save a Duck, volunteers turned out to wash ducks that could be caught and keep them in buildings to dry off before being released.
But thousands of ducks died and aquatic life destroyed in parts of the Mississippi.
While the soy and petroleum oil mix was deadly to ducks, the soybean oil — a biodegradable food product — in the rivers around Mankato didn’t seem particularly hard on the fish.
“You’d go down by the river at Sibley Park and see globs of oil floating. The carp would come up and suck it down. They really liked the soy oil,” Kruger said.
The disaster sparked legislation in the following months and years, including law preventing the storage of hazardous material next to public waters and the creation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 1967.
At the time of the spill, Honeymead was owned and operated by brothers Lowell and Dwayne Andreas, who later went on to lead ag giant Archer Daniels Midland. The facility is now operated by CHS, a large farm cooperative.