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Crews hope new measures will detect gas fumes earlier at U of M to prevent evacuations

New measures in place to detect gas fumes earlier at U of M
New measures in place to detect gas fumes earlier at U of M 02:06

MINNEAPOLIS -- A new electronic monitor and nearly a dozen new monitoring stations are among the measures the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota are implementing to avoid any repeat of this summer's evacuations because of a gas scare.

"The safety of the public, including University students, staff, faculty, and visitors, is our top priority," Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said. "Staff are working every day to safeguard against discharges like those that were deemed so serious as to evacuate parts of the campus and surrounding neighborhoods."

A campus spokesman told WCCO the campus' summer population was just a fraction of a fall or spring semester on-campus population of up to 80,000. If there are any subsequent reports of fumes, there's no question the disruption would be far more significant.

"It was a pretty wild experience of being there for that first (manhole) explosion and then having (evacuations) happen again," Bryan Van Dyke, owner of D.P. Dough on 15th and University Ave, told WCCO. "It is always a concern when you have manhole covers flipping up in the middle of the road. It's going to be a problem that kids are back and there's more traffic."

Kate Hein, a recent graduate now working in U of M's Language Department, echoed that sentiment.

"If you're in the middle of a test, like what do you do? Do you have to re-test? Do you have to reschedule everything?" she said. "If you're running a lab or any sort of experiment in a lab building, sometimes it runs for a week or even a month and so any disruption can be really catastrophic and set a whole lab back."

Crews still searching for the source.


The first fume emergency occurred on June 30th when fire crews were called to a fraternity house for a fire in the basement. Small explosions at nearby manholes then triggered evacuations at residence halls and fraternities, as well as a local daycare and YMCA.

On Aug. 2nd, more reports of fumes led to an even greater emergency response as fire crews and utility crews measured dangerous lower-explosive-levels (LEL) across a mild-wide radius.

The next day, tests revealed the flammable substance was diesel fuel, and nearly a month later there's been no definitive evidence of how or where the petroleum entered the sewer system.

According to a Met Council spokeswoman, investigators collaborating with Hennepin County identified and then inspected 10 companies with "the potential to discharge petroleum or solvents." 

The companies ranged from trucking/transportation to manufacturing, fuel recycling to metal finishing, and were chosen based on their proximity to the U's campus and areas just north. Additionally, teams from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency inspected six facilities that housed a total of 18 underground petroleum storage tanks, ranging in size from 1,000 to 30,000 gallons.

Though one company, Zahl Petroleum Maintenance Co., was cited for violating its discharge permit, the Met Council ruled out any connection to the summer incidents, and the investigation thus still continues.

"This investigation requires the coordination of numerous departments and agencies that are all committed to ensuring the public's safety," Katrina Kessler, MPCA commissioner, asserted in a news release this week. "We have taken extraordinary measures to continue monitoring and have developed a response plan should further action be required to protect residents, students, and businesses."

Myron Frans, U of M's Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations, this week also posted a letter to the campus community thanking the Met Council and sharing information on their own initiatives.

"We have put additional precautions and preparedness plans in place and are in frequent contact with officials while we collaborate to solve this regional challenge. Through it all, our focus is your safety and the safety of all visitors, fans, and others coming to our campus. We are excited to welcome you to campus and look forward to a rewarding semester ahead."

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