Railroad switches cleanup contractors on Talkeetna spill

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Railroad abruptly changed cleanup field contractors in an effort get at more of the estimated 120,000 gallons of jet fuel it spilled north of Talkeetna in December.

But with the cleanup dragging into its third month and breakup drawing nearer, state environmental officials say they are concerned about the sudden change.

The fuel spilled when 15 tanker cars derailed near Gold Creek on Dec. 22.

The railroad drilled 57 recovery wells and pumps are sucking up 100 to 300 gallons of oil a day, said Ernie Piper, the railroad's vice president of safety and environmental compliance.

Just under 10,000 gallons have been recovered. The process is slowed by silt that clogs screens used in the wells, Piper said.

By switching from CH2M Hill to new contractor ESL-LCC in midweek, the railroad hoped to speed fuel recovery, Piper said. The change will provide a ''new set of eyes'' at the spill site, he said.

CH2M Hill will continue to work at the spill site. ESL-LCC would not comment about the move.

A smooth transition between contractors is especially important now that breakup -- during which groundwater will rise and spring runoff will flow toward the nearby Susitna River -- is approaching, said Leslie Pearson, the Department of Environmental Conservation spill recovery coordinator.

Piper said ESL-LCC hired the same subcontractors to run the pumps and work was not interrupted. The railroad is also using the same number of workers now as before, he said.

All that changed was the strategy behind getting the fuel out of the ground, he said.

On Thursday, Pearson said a DEC official planned to inspect the site within days.

''We have a real tight weather window here before things start to really melt,'' she said.

The Susitna River will rise rapidly during breakup, Piper said, while the groundwater will probably rise more slowly. The railroad thinks fuel won't rush toward the Susitna.

But Pearson said there is no certainty what effect breakup will have. In some places the fuel is 45 feet below the ground surface and 15 feet below the water table.

''I don't think anyone has enough information on where this product is going to go,'' she said.



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