Fuel leak forces evacuation; state expert fears groundwater contamination

Nov. 16, 2000
Volunteer firefighters waded through half a foot of gasoline Monday morning to plug a hole in a leaking fuel storage tank at the Cenex Co-op gas station.


November 15, 2000 (The Spokesman Review)—Volunteer firefighters waded through half a foot of gasoline Monday morning to plug a hole in a leaking fuel storage tank at the Cenex Co-op gas station.

Between 7,200 and 7,400 gallons of gasoline spewed through the hole onto the ground, contained only by an antiquated dirt and gravel berm, according to county and city authorities.

The spill and associated fumes forced evacuation of the surrounding area, including a restaurant, mobile home park, cleaner, motel and about eight homes.

The lack of an impermeable barrier under the above-ground storage tank means cleanup will have to begin soon to keep the fuel from leaching into the ground water, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"According to our database, the ground water is 17 feet underground here," said Kreg Beck, DEQ remediation specialist. "If we get a rain event, that will only make it worse."

An environmental consultant hired by Cenex questioned that estimate, however, and said the spill was essentially stabilized in the loamy clay soils.

According to other work that the company has done in that neighborhood, "the chances are that ground water isn't at 15 to 20 feet, but closer to 75 to 100 feet," said Greg Schiferin, of Selkirk Environmental.

City residents generally do not depend on the ground water for drinking, however. The city's water is pumped from Myrtle Creek, about five miles away.

Luckily for emergency workers and neighbors, the weather was crisp Monday morning when the leak was discovered. The ground under the tank was frozen, and below-freezing temperatures helped abate the fumes.

"The temperature kept the vapors so they're not as volatile," said Bonners Ferry Fire Chief Ron Kish. "Had this been a 90-degree day, we would have been in a lot of trouble."

"We would have had to evacuate a much larger area," added county incident commander Bob Graham.

The spill resulted in heavily soaked clothing for firefighters and a big mess for Cenex to clean up, but no injuries.

Still, Mayor Darrell Kerby declared a state of emergency in order to authorize out-of-city and statewide help, if necessary.

"If you look at the potential... we've been very lucky because of the circumstances, the response of people, the timing," said Kerby, recalling other near-misses with railroad related spills. "Let's hope we don't need to continue to test our luck and we're done with these things."

Cenex owner Ray Delay said the leak appeared to have been caused by fatigue in the approximately 25-year-old tank.

"When they rust from the inside out, you can't tell," he said.

The leak was discovered at about 7 a.m. by a Cenex worker and customer, Delay said. The worker was helping the customer with some diesel fuel near the storage tanks when they noticed an unusually strong fuel odor.

The employee put a large stock water tank under the leak to catch the fuel and tried to plug the hole himself, Delay said.

By 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., firefighters were on the scene, putting down materials to soak up the fuel and plugging the tank with a wood plug and specially designed putty, Kish said.

"It was coming out at a good inch and a half stream," he said.

Police evacuated businesses and homes in the near vicinity, in case of ignition and explosion, or exposure to toxic fumes.

Elany Manske was on her way to work when police came calling. Her husband and son decided to go hunting until the evacuation was over, she said.

By noon, the odor was all but gone from the pond of fuel, then blanketed in a fume-covering foam.

Selkirk Environmental, Cenex and Idaho DEQ were discussing cleanup plans. City officials made it clear that they did not want the contaminated soil stored on site, so Cenex will have to find a place where it can be shipped and stored until next spring. Then, the contaminated soil can be land-farmed, to allow the volatile chemicals to evaporate.

The cleanup may require the removal of five, 15,000-gallon above- ground tanks to make way for excavators.

To continue operating, DEQ also may require Cenex to upgrade its aging storage facility. Before 1997, above-ground storage tanks did not need a secondary containment system to protect ground water.

"This isn't a good setup," said Capt. Larry Owsley, the Hazardous Materials Team leader, standing next to the tank, which was peeling paint and bleeding rust. "It's grandfathered in. That's the way things were done. It will be a major cleanup here."

New storage facilities must have concrete, or otherwise lined containment areas, in the event of spills, said John Sutherland, DEQ remediation program manager.

"What you're seeing in Bonners Ferry is similar to the situation you'll find in many, many existing tanks around the state," Sutherland said.

While it may be cost-prohibitive for many gas stations to upgrade their storage facilities, they can purchase relatively inexpensive insurance through the state in the event of a fuel spill, Sutherland said.

Delay said he had private insurance that he believes will cover the cost of cleanup.

Beck and Sutherland both said the size of the Cenex spill was the largest they'd seen in years.

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