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Petroleum spill is expensive to clean up, Dave Mills says

by Sheila Gardner

A network of light blue and white PCV pipes snakes its way behind the Minden Beacon Food Mart. The concrete pad around the gasoline pumps shows signs of fresh cement work. Several yards behind the station, near Bently Nevada Corp., a giant compressor in a locked “remediation compound,” runs 24 hours a day, pumping air into the soil and sucking bad vapors out.

This is what the state Department of Environmental Protection calls a remedial cleanup of a methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) leak.

To station owner Dave Mills, it’s a financial nightmare that began in December 1997 and has cost him $160,000 so far – money he raised by taking out a loan against his house.

“This is the most stressful year I’ve had in my life,” said Mills, who’s been pumping gas since he was 17.

“The worst fear in your life is your family being injured or having bad health,” he said Monday. “In my business, the second biggest fear is having a leak.”

Mills said his troubles began in late 1996 when his gasoline supplier, Toms Sierra Nevada of Colfax, Calif., offered to put a blend valve in his product line.

“It blends the gasoline,” Mills said. “We did away with one of the midgrade tanks and converted it to unleaded. It mixed blended supreme and unleaded to make the midgrade. When they put the new valve in, it leaked for about 90 days. It didn’t leak a lot; it was a seeping kind of leak. I couldn’t tell how much gas we lost. I think it was 50 to 75 gallons. I physically inspected it and was able to see where it was seeping. I had it fixed and didn’t think I had lost that much product. I just fixed it and forgot about it.”

About eight months later, in September 1997, Mills’ next-door neighbor, Bently Nevada Corp., was negotiating with Douglas County about the sale of its property after the Minden manufacturing firm relocates to the Bently Science Park. In the course of testing the site, a petroleum leak was discovered in December of that year.

n Bad news. “Low and behold, they found gasoline floating on top of the groundwater. I remember the day so well. It was the weekend before my 50th birthday and I was going backpacking,” Mills said.

“When I saw that gas floating on top of the water, my hands started shaking and my heart was pounding.”

The leak was in the proximity of Minden well No. 1, which has been providing water to the community since 1929. The contamination never reached the water supply and the town has shut off the well until the MTBE threat is cleaned up.

MTBE is a fuel additive which gained widespread use in the early 1990s because it contributed to cleaner air. MTBE in a water source, however, causes major problems. Several wells at South Lake Tahoe have been shut down in the past 18 months because they are contaminated or near a contaminated site.

Mills is considering legal action against his supplier for the faulty valve and what he says is a refusal to take any responsibility.

“They won’t come to the table,” he said. “I’ve written letters, threatened, screamed. Initially, they paid about $12,000, so they’ve acknowledged they are part of it.”

Jim Enge of Toms Sierra Nevada did not return telephone calls for comment.

Mills said the state has estimated cleanup costs could reach $1 million, but he doesn’t believe the figure will run that high.

What has saved him from financial ruin is the state’s willingness to reimburse him through the Nevada Petroleum Fund, which he pays into as a gas station owner. The fund will pay 78 percent of his cleanup expenses, and maybe more, but he’s yet to see the first disbursement.

“We pay three-quarters of a cent for every gallon of gas we purchase. It goes into the cleanup fund and the state doles it out,” Mills said.

After a year of testing and investigation, the cleanup began at the station in February. Mills said he’s relieved the process is under way at the site, a gas station since the 1940s. Mills has been able to keep the station open while the work goes on.

n Tell the truth. “I went to my employees and told them what was going on and that we might have to close the station for awhile during the cleanup. They asked me what we should tell our customers. I said, ‘Well, the truth works pretty good. Tell them we had a leak, we fixed it and we’re cleaning it up,'” he said.

Mills said he is proud of his environmental record. The MTBE leak left him feeling “ashamed and embarrassed.”

“I’ve been in business for 28 years. I bought this station when I was 23. I was pretty proud that in 1987, I was the first guy in town to upgrade my tanks.

“I want to clean this up. This isn’t a problem that I could just walk away from. That’s not my way,” he said. “The amount of liability you have for the money you make just doesn’t seem worth it, but that’s the nature of the beast.”

Mills said he is thankful to Bently Nevada for finding the leak.

“I’ll be eternally grateful to Bently,” Mills said. “If they hadn’t found this out, it could have progressed and gotten worse. It’s a good thing they were doing the testing to sell that property.”

James Lukasko, environmental engineer within the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, told the Minden Town Board last week that threat to the well appears to be minimal.

“The contamination has not crossed the sewer line,” he said. “The remediation system has been operating.”

He estimated the Minden well should be off-line another month to six weeks. When it comes back on, the well will be tested regularly to monitor the water quality.

Town engineer Bruce Scott said Monday that residents haven’t suffered because the well has been shut off.

“Minden has plenty of capacity to meet its demands. Not having it on-line hasn’t been a big problem, but it’s important that we have some redundancy and backup,” Scott said.

Well No. 1 is the town’s oldest; Scott estimated it was drilled in 1929.

“It has served us well,” he said. “If we were to replace it at today’s standards, it would cost $250,000-plus to do so.”

Town officials went to bat for Mills, urging the state to consider him a candidate for the Nevada Petroleum Fund.

n Good citizen. “The town feels that Dave is an extremely good citizen of Minden. The town is very supportive of merchants and business people. Dave has been willing and open to share information. I don’t think we could have had better cooperation,” Scott said.

In hindsight, Mills said he probably made too many assumptions, and should have taken action sooner.

“I assumed the people who put in the valve knew what they were doing,” he said. “I was so stressed out in the beginning, I couldn’t see my way clear to clean this up.”

The state provided him with a list of experts, but no recommendations. It took Mills awhile before he hooked up with J.D. Akenhead of Akenhead Compliance in Las Vegas. Mills jokes that his lawyer, Carson Valley attorney Noel Manoukian, is a “junior partner” in the Minden station.

In his cramped office at the back of the station, Mills wades through stacks of faxes and remediation reports, tossing around technical terms with the expertise of a Harvard-trained chemist. With the money he’s spent in the past year, Mills could have financed a four-year degree at any high-priced Ivy League college.

“MTBE?” he said. “It’s just a four-letter word to me.”