Benzene turns up in Sterling well water

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

Recent tests have found benzene contamination in the drinking water well of an auto shop a quarter mile from the Sterling Zip Mart, a closed convenience store gas station and site of a major gasoline spill discovered late last year.

The fouled well was found at B&D Auto and Denny's Auto Body at Mile 83.5 Sterling Highway, said Don Fritz, an environmental specialist at the Kenai office of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Contamination has not been discovered at other nearby drinking water wells, Fritz said, nor in the wells at Sterling Elementary School, although dissolved gas products and benzene in excess of drinking water standards have been found in a monitoring well sunk for testing purposes roughly 190 feet from the school. Fritz said he does not expect the contamination to reach the school.

Beneath the Zip Mart spill site is an estimated 100,000 gallons of leaked gasoline, perhaps more, floating on the water table. It is the state's largest spill ever from a regulated retail gasoline facility, he said. Further assessment is to be done, including drilling another round of monitoring wells to further define the down-gradient plume, Fritz said.

An Anchorage contractor, Shannon and Wilson Inc., is installing free-product recovery wells at this time and starting a pilot gas-recovery project that should last a week or so and determine the best method for a full-scale project to recover the free gasoline under the ground, he said.

Zip Mart property owners have been cooperative, he said, but unable financially to handle the cleanup. The state has taken it over. Whittier Properties Inc. could be handed a cleanup bill, but Fritz said it isn't clear if the company has the assets to cover the cost. He said the company was exploring whether an insurance policy in operation when the Zip Mart was open was in effect when the spill occurred. That has not been determined, he said.

Fritz said he hopes to have the recovery operation under way by late July.

"My intent is to work this summer," he said.

Fritz noted there had been concern raised about whether the contamination might ever reach the Kenai River, which is better than a mile away. He said it was very unlikely.

"Based on the distance to the Kenai, I don't anticipate the release will move even another several hundred feet," he said.

The presence of gasoline in the ground was first discovered in December.

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