Rolled semi closes highway

Fuel leaks in pond near Kenai River in Cooper Landing

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

A fuel truck rolled over at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing Monday afternoon, spilling fuel near the Kenai River and halting traffic.

The truck, from Fisher Fuels in Big Lake, was headed to Homer from Anchorage. It was reported to have been carrying 7,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,800 gallons of No. 1 diesel fuel. There are three compartments in the truck, but the third compartment was empty.

Alaska State Troopers responded shortly after 1 p.m., when the accident occurred, and contacted the Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation, reporting that fuel was spilling from the rear of the tanker.

The truck was spilling fuel at a rate of three gallons per minute, said Charles Fedullow, a spokes-person for DEC.

The pond the truck landed in is south of the Kenai River and connected to the river by a culvert running underneath the highway. Troopers reported seeing evidence of possible chemical flow into the river, but they were unable to identify how much fuel had been lost.

"It looks like light oil sheen has been reported on the river," said trooper information officer Greg Wilkinson.

Cars were stopped and backed up in both directions. Wilkinson said the highway had to be closed until about 10 p.m. He said because of the high levels of gases in the air from the fuel, the area was a hazard. However, there were no evacuations.

"Until we get the benzene levels down, we're not going to be letting anybody through," Wilkinson said. "The cleanup crews will be pumping fuel off of the pond, and that's only going to create more benzene." Two DEC crews were mobilized to direct cleanup, with air monitoring equipment, river booms, absorbents and radios to respond to the potential spill into the Kenai River.

Teams from Soldotna and Anchorage would work with companies contracted by Fisher Fuels, said John Brown of DEC, but he could not say how long it would take.

"It's hard to say," Brown said. "We've got to make it safe for people working there. That involves getting the bulk of the gas off the water and making sure there aren't any potential explosions."

Brown said the teams are equipped with fast water booms, designed for the river, that don't have as deep a skirt as those used in open bodies of water like Cook Inlet of the Gulf of Alaska. They also will cover much of the area in flame-retarding foam.

"They use the foam to basically break down or put on top of fuel," Brown said. "It's basically used to control the hazards of explosive vapors until the vacuum trucks arrive."

Fisher Fuels owner Brad Fisher contracted R and K Industrial Inc. of Kenai and Weaver Brothers of Soldotna to assist with the cleanup and retrieval of the spilled fuel. Fisher said he was uncertain how much fuel needed to be recovered, but he was optimistic the process would go quickly.

"We don't know how much loss there was," Fisher said. "By the end of the evening, all of the standing fuel will be cleaned up. Then we have to clean up the pond and river."

Wilkinson said troopers were advising cars stuck by the wreck to make alternate plans until the road could be cleared up.

"Troopers went up and down the line telling people to turn around or to go somewhere to have dinner," he said.

Among those held up by the travel log-jam were two groups of Skyview High School students. Principal John Pothast said four students who live in Cooper Landing had been returned to the school. He said school superintendent Donna Peterson and Laidlaw Transit Inc., the school bus company, made the decision around 4 p.m. to turn the bus around.

"Because of their location, most of the families have created a contingency plan for where they (students) would go if they were snowed in or something like this," Pothast said.

He said each of the students had found a place to stay by 7 p.m. Another group of Skyview students also had been stopped by the wreck.

"We've got a group of students and a teacher who are stuck on the other side who are trying to get back," Pothast said.

Science teacher Mark Larson and teacher-principal Christine Ermold had two vans with about 23 students from Larson's marine science class that were returning from a field trip to Seward.

Peterson made contact with the group and said it stopped to get food and made arrangements for lodging in the event that the highway remained closed through the night.

The fuel truck's driver, Dale Wilbur from Big Lake, went off the road and into an unnamed pond just south of the highway and west of Gwin's Lodge and Restaurant. Troopers are still investigating the cause of the accident.

Moose Pass volunteer firefighter George Siter Jr. was on the scene shortly after the crash.

"There is a right and then a left turn just past Gwin's," Siter said. "He went straight. He drove right off the road as if he fell asleep."

According to trooper reports, Wilbur only had minor injuries, but he refused to be treated for them. Siter said he was surprised at Wilbur's condition, considering the wreckage.

"The truck's a mess," he said. "He's lucky to be alive. The truck was all twisted and the cab (was) in two pieces.



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