(UPDATE: This story has been updated with information about how many drivers have called MnDOT since Saturday and information from the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, as well as comment from another Northfield driver affected.)
When drivers heading west on Highway 19 saw signs warning of road construction on Saturday, most of them kept driving without a thought.
That was until they left the area with vehicles covered in oil and grime because of a problem with the construction project.
What started as a sealcoating project became much more when a surprise rain storm prevented the tar from bonding with the gravel and caused it to instead bond to vehicles.
Minnesota Department of Transportation Public Affairs Coordinator Mike Dougherty explained that the oil mixture used for sealcoating is supposed to bond with the gravel and road surface as it dries, but if water is added, the oil isn’t able to dry. Since it was raining on Saturday, the mixture didn’t dry but splashed onto vehicles instead.
“[The storm] was an unanticipated issue,” he said. “The rain was the component that made this go incorrectly.”
Dozens of drivers were affected before the Minnesota State Patrol redirected traffic along a detour for four hours to address the problem. The road is now open to drivers again.
Tom and Debbie Barth of Faribault were two of the vehicle owners affected. They had just bought two kayaks in Apple Valley and were returning home when they hit the oily gravel.
Debbie Barth said they didn’t notice anything was wrong until they arrived home and saw that their kayaks — originally lime green and lemon yellow in color — were now black. The couple’s brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee, purchased only a month ago for more than $50,000, and their trailer, were also covered in grime.
She said at first they tried to clean everything off, but when that didn’t work, they visited a local car wash. That failed as well.
“It wouldn’t budge,” she said. “We made no impact at all.”
Following that unsuccessful attempt, she drove to Wal-Mart and bought $50 worth of bug and tar remover, which she and her husband, plus her nephew and his girlfriend, spent the rest of the afternoon applying to the car and kayaks. While she said they were able to mostly clean the kayaks and the Jeep (they couldn’t clean them completely), the trailer was a lost cause because of its grated bottom.
“It’s a huge mess,” she said. “We scrubbed and scrubbed until we were exhausted. You just can’t get it all off. It was unreal.”
Eileen and Marvin Seeley had a similar experience after driving through the construction site on the way to Fireside Orchard and Gardens near I-35 heading toward Lonsdale. Eileen Seeley said the couple didn’t think anything about driving over the gravel on the way out, although their windshield wipers started bouncing across the window. When they arrived at the orchard, they still didn’t notice anything was wrong, since their 2006 Buick Rendezvous is black.
“We didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “It didn’t even dawn on us that anything was wrong.”
They didn’t realize the damage until they returned home to Northfield and saw that their wipers had been torn to shreds. The windshield and back window were caked and the tires were covered in tar.
“When we got out of the car, it was literally oozing over everything,” she said, adding that the vehicle was covered front to back and top to bottom in the resurfacing mixture.
The couple tried Dawn dish soap at first but that didn’t work, so then they tried Goo Gone spray, which at least worked on the windows. Seeley said they couldn’t clean everything off even after hours of effort, so they scheduled an appointment at Car Time Auto Center.
The Seeleys aren’t the only ones who have reached out to local auto centers. Car Time general manager Jared Hubers said he currently has 10 cars sitting at his dealership and a waiting list of 50 people that is growing by about 5-10 new calls an hour.
He said he and his crew worked all day Monday to find a cleaner that would take off the resurfacing mixture, finally finding success with a citrus-based cleaner that won’t affect the paint. He estimates it takes about 4-6 hours to clean each car, since the cars must be cleaned, then washed, then waxed.
“We’re very confident that we can get each car back to the way it was before they drove it over Highway 19,” he said.
According to Dougherty, MnDOT has worked with Astech Corp. out of St. Joseph, Minnesota, before but there have never been any problems like this. Astech is working on several other projects across southern Minnesota at this time.
Doughterty said MnDOT is holding Astech responsible for any problems vehicle owners face. Those affected can call its office number, 320-363-8500, to file claims.
Hubers said his auto center has already worked out an agreement with Astech so that the contractor’s insurance is billed for car cleanup, leaving local drivers without any expense.
Seeley said she called Astech on Monday but has yet to hear back from them.
As of 3:30 p.m. Monday, MnDOT had received about 250 calls from motorists with questions about Saturday’s situation, Dougherty said.
According to a representative from the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, people can also file consumer reports if they feel the contractor doesn’t address their concerns.
An Astech representative declined to comment.
Grace Webb covers the cities of Northfield and Lonsdale, and writes about public safety. You can reach her at 645-1117.