Buried storage tanks pose challenges to modern development

The city of Ishpeming recently hit a little snag in the process of completing its multimillion-dollar water infrastructure project.

In the course of replacing a good share of the city’s water system this summer, construction crews working near the intersection of Pearl and First streets came across a couple of underground storage tanks.

Not only does this discovery halt all work in that area, delaying construction at that site by at least a fortnight, officials said, but it raises some uncertainty as to how removal and cleanup will be financed.

Experts determined at least one of the tanks contained gasoline, indicating the possibility of the site being some sort of filling station at one point in time. The city acquired the property in the late 1950s, but the identification of those tanks on any city map or municipal charts thus far could not be found.

At least at first glance, crews could find nothing that showed any sign that the tanks were leaking and found no indication of contamination in the soils surrounding the tanks. That is undoubtedly a blessing, but situations such as this are no easy feat to address.

The removal of underground storage tanks can become a very costly endeavor and present some serious risks to the environment. Those tanks could be in such poor condition that when crews pull them out of the ground, they might simply crumble apart, leaving the contents to flow freely into the ground. Subsequently, all that soil will need to be removed. If the tanks are solid enough to withstand the pressure of being hoisted from the earth, there’s still the potential for a spill during the process of placing them onto whatever mode of transportation will be used, as well as throughout transit to a special waste facility downstate that accepts this type of material.

Underground storage tanks are a problem not exclusive to Ishpeming. The state has the Michigan Underground Storage Tank Authority, within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which works with municipalities and others dealing with such a problem. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in financial resources have been allocated to the Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund to help those folks remedy the problem.

Officials involved in the Ishpeming water project are hoping to tap into some of those state resources, as well as those at the federal level.

The Ishpeming City Council during a meeting Wednesday authorized its city manager to move forward with securing the necessary permitting for the removal and disposal of the tanks. The preliminary financial figures were in the range of $15,000 to $20,000, but the hope is that the tab will be picked up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development, as a USDA-RD loan was used to finance the city’s water infrastructure revamp.

“Because we hit it with the project, I believe RD will cover this, and we will have to check with them eventually, once we get ironed out what we are doing here. It should be part of the project; it was caused by the project work we did,” GEI Consultants Project Manager Mark Stoor said in a recent Journal article.

Information on how old these tanks truly are remains to be revealed, but one thing that appears to be certain is that they must be removed.

It’s regrettable Ishpeming has found itself in this predicament, but we are hoping, as are project officials and city leaders, that the local municipality won’t be on the hook for such an unforeseen and unfortunate expense.