Benzene contamination found in Sterling water well near spill site

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

STERLING (AP) -- Benzene contamination has been found in the drinking water well of a Sterling auto shop located near the site of a major gasoline leak discovered late last year.

The contaminated well sits at B&D Auto and Denny's Auto Body at Mile 83.5 of the Sterling Highway. That's a quarter mile from the now-closed Sterling Zip Mart. The contamination at the former gas station was discovered during environmental work by a company hired by the station's owners, Whittier Properties Inc.

Beside the auto shop, contamination has not been discovered at other nearby drinking water wells, said Don Fritz, an environmental specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

But dissolved gas products and benzene exceeding drinking water standards have been found in a monitoring well sunk for testing purposes roughly 190 feet from the Sterling Elementary School, according to Fritz. He said the contamination is not expected 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, Fritz said.

Further assessment to be done includes 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, Fritz said. The company also is starting a pilot gas-recovery project to determine the best method for a full-scale project to recover the gasoline, which leaked from a subsurface storage tank.

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 billed, 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.

Fritz noted there had been concern raised about whether the contamination might ever reach the Kenai River more than a mile away.

''Based on the distance to the Kenai, I don't anticipate the release will move even another several hundred feet,'' Fritz told the Peninsula Clarion.

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

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