Cleaning Up a Big, Underground Mess in Michigan

  • Logan's Gas and Deli on State Route 89 near Battle Creek, Michigan lost 8,000 gallons of gas underground. The gas station has since gone out of business. (Photo by Mark Brush)

There are around 4,800 gas stations in Michigan, but at one time, there were a lot more. It seemed like just about every corner had a gas station on it.

Many of those gas stations are closed now, but taxpayers are often on the hook for what’s been left behind.

A map of the open LUST sites in Michigan


One morning the owner of Logan’s Gas & Deli came in to check his inventory, and things were a little off.

Steve Beukema is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“In the course of a weekend they lost about 8,000 gallons of gasoline. They came to work on a Monday and their 10,000 gallon tank was empty,” said Beukema.

Beukema is the project manager for the clean-up at this site near Battle Creek. He says when they pulled the tank, they found a dime-sized hole on the bottom.

Gas spread through the sandy soil underground, across the street, and under a house and a nearby pizza restaurant. Both get their water from underground wells.

Beukema says the owner tried to clean up the mess, but the insurance company wasn’t paying the bills fast enough.

The clean-up contractor walked away after they weren’t getting paid, and the gas station went belly up.

So that’s when you and I step in. We pay an extra fee at the gas pump that helps pay for this kind of clean-up.

Beukema showed me their clean-up system.

It uses a series of high pressure valves that force air underground. The air pushes the gas vapor upward.

“And the other part of the system is a soil vapor extraction, that’s essentially like a big vacuum cleaner. It’ll suck up all the gasoline vapors from the soil.”

Altogether this clean-up will cost more than a million dollars. Luckily, the underground drinking water wells were not affected here.

This site is an extreme case. Beukema says most leaks at gas stations don’t happen so quickly. They typically leak slowly – over long periods of time.

These kinds of slow underground leaks have affected drinking water supplies and surface water, and there have been a lot of leaks in Michigan.

Today, there are more than 9,000 documented leaks that still need to be cleaned up. Most of these tanks are not actively leaking, but the pollution remains.

In the U.S., only Florida has more open clean-up cases.

Around half of the 9,000 sites in Michigan are known as “orphan” sites. The original polluters can’t be found, or they can’t or won’t pay for them.

So it falls back to the state, but the state has been lagging behind with clean-ups.

Mark Griffin is with the Michigan Petroleum Association. 

“You could not find a more inefficient, stupid way to run a clean-up program,” said Griffin.

He blames a lot of bureaucratic red tape and a lack of funding for slowing down the clean-ups.

In Michigan, there’s a 7/8 cent fee on each gallon of gas that goes into the “Refined Petroleum Fund.”

That fund was originally set up to help clean-up leaks when gas stations replaced their underground tanks, but with the recent tight budget years, that fund has been raided for other purposes.

“I believe $10-15 million a year during the Granholm administration was siphoned off to the Department of Treasury to pay quality of life bonds,” said Griffin.

And the fund is still being diverted under the Snyder Administration.

The 7/8 of a cent that we pay on each gallon of gas generates around $50 million a year for the Refined Petroleum Fund.

But in recent years, only $20 million of that has been put toward cleaning up these leaks. (The Snyder Administration did request that $30 million go toward clean-up in the next fiscal year, but James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council says it remains to be seen how that money will be spent.)

This summer, the legislature passed a series of bills aimed removing a lot of the red tape in the clean-up program.

It will also set up an advisory board to take a look at how the money in the Refined Petroleum Fund is spent.

The state estimates it would cost around $1.8 billion to clean up the more than 9,000 contaminated sites around the state, so even if all the gas fee money went towards clean up. It would take decades to tackle the backlog.