Crash Site Cleanup: Fuel spill poses threats to Sturgeon River ecology

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s fatal traffic accident involving a fuel leak from an overturned tanker on the Sturgeon River bridge, spill containment measures were deployed in an attempt to minimize contamination to the river. An EPA official confirmed Monday that an undetermined amount of fuel had leaked into the river.

CHASSELL TOWNSHIP — The initial cleanup of the fuel spill at the site of Saturday’s fatal crash in Chassell Township could last up to a week, the cleanup’s coordinator said Tuesday.

Crews are recovering and gauging the spread and impact of about 4,000 gallons of gas and 500 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled in the crash.

The four-vehicle crash at the bridge over the Sturgeon River on Saturday killed one motorist and injured two. One lane of U.S. 41 remains closed as crews work to clean up the roadway. The gas also reached the banks of the Sturgeon River and is believed to have entered the river, which is frozen over with a three-foot layer of ice and snow.

The river flows into Portage Lake and is adjacent to the Sturgeon River Slough Wildlife Area, which is managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ll see if we can find it under the ice and map out where it is,” said Ralph Dollhopf, on-site coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup. “Depending on how that goes, we might be able to recover some of it.”

Gas that accumulated on top of the river is also being recovered — “very slowly, very carefully, because of the extreme conditions and safety implications,” Dollhopf said.

How far the gas might spread in the river depends on ice conditions and how fast the river flows, among other factors, Dollhopf said.

“We can’t really predict how it’s going to behave under there,” he said. “All we can do is start looking for it. To do that, we’ve got to have protocols in place, equipment in place, so people can go onto the ice safely.”

At a minimum, cleanup will last a couple of days to a week, Dollhopf said. After that, it will depend on how much gasoline is easily recoverable from the river.

“If we find a lot of gasoline that’s recoverable, I think it could be quite a while,” he said. “If not, it’s possible we could have a situation where we come back when the weather breaks and resume cleanup and assessment at that time. It’s too soon to tell.”

The parent firm of Klemm Trucking, the company of the overturned truck, is paying for the cleanup, Dollhopf said.

Several hundred cubic yards of dirt and snow have been removed from the site, and Dollhopt expects there will be more. How much more will depend on how deep they have to dig to reach uncontaminated soil.

Klemm and DP Construction are applying for a permit to deposit the material at a landfill.

The state of Michigan has evaluated the situation and does not believe the spill will affect any public water supplies, Dollhopf said. The Department of Environment Quality will work with the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department to investigate any potential threats to private drinking sources near the spill.

“We don’t think there’s a problem,” Dollhopf said.

Air around the site is also being sampled and monitored to make sure residual gasoline vapors pose no problems.

Dollhopf said local, state and federal agencies have been working in a “unified command.” The Bootjack Fire Department has been on standby with its hovercraft during the work on the river.

“There are lots of agencies contributing to the effort, and it’s really been helpful to the response,” he said. “We’re working under extreme conditions, and it’s a nice thing to see in the community.”