“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
On Tuesday, July 22, a Petroleum Carriers, LLC, tanker truck carrying 7,800 gallons of diesel fuel was traveling Route 29 north in Bartow when it unexplainably turned onto its right side and skidded to a halt on the bridge at the intersection of routes 250/92/28.
The contents of the tanker ignited into a fireball which could be seen from miles away, and fuel spilled into the East Fork of the Greenbrier River.
“I was in Marlinton when the call came out and when I came through Arbovale, I could see it plain in the sky,” Bartow-Frank-Durbin volunteer fire department chief Kenneth “Buster” Varner said. “It was a big, black cloud. Some of the firemen that came from the Elkins area said they could see the black blaze whenever they came on this side of Cheat, up at the overlook.”
The BFD was joined by all county fire departments, as well as crews from Lewisburg, Circleville, Valley Head and the Regional Hazmat Team from Clarksburg. The firefighters attacked the blaze with all that they had, but weren’t fully equipped for a fuel fire.
“What you need to fight fuel and gasoline fires is foam, and we didn’t have enough foam,” Varner said. “We couldn’t get close enough with what we had because we’re not used to this type of fire. We have a little foam apparatus but it wasn’t enough to be able to do [the whole fire] so we ended up just trying to keep it as cool as we could and trying to save the bridge. We got it down to where we could handle it and then we put some foam to it and got it put out.”
The fire gutted the fuel truck, leaving only a third of the truck’s frame at the end of the day. The fire followed the trail of fuel down around the river bank and underneath the bridge, melting rubber bearing pads that support the steel beams of the bridge.
As the firefighters battled the flames, passersby and Bartow residents gathered at a distance to watch the scene unfold.
“It’s within a quarter mile of my house,” Richard Walther said. “I was working on a job and came back to the house when I saw all the smoke. I had my camera in the truck and just ran up there and starting shooting pictures. It was amazing. I parked probably almost a football field away from the fire and felt the heat as soon as I got out of the truck. All the smoke was going straight up so there really wasn’t much diesel smell at that time.”
Along with fighting the flames, the fire crews had the foresight to place booms in the water to keep the diesel from going too far along the river’s course and causing an even larger disaster. The Department of Environmental Protection was on-site an hour after the blaze began and assisted with the clean up.
Once the fire was deemed extinguished, the clean up crews got to work. Varner Towing Company removed the remains of the truck, and a crew from Cardno Environmental arrived to clean up the diesel and contaminated soil.
The Cardno crew placed booms at varying intervals along the East Fork, as well as absorbent pads which specifically absorb diesel and not water.
“I’d be a little bit remiss to go any further without saying that the local fire and county emergency response did a very good job before we got here,” Cardno Vice President Brent Scott said. “They boomed the river. They did a very good job there, so when we got on-site, we continued that process. We’re still doing that process. It’s kind of the first step.”
Once the river was properly boomed, Cardno excavated the banks along the affected part of the river. The crew dug out the area and collected soil samples for testing.
“In a situation like this, we know it went all the way into the water so we’ll be excavating almost to the water’s edge,” Scott said. “Here, it was heavily stained and there’s an odor. There’s instruments we use to field screen where the impact will be. We’ll excavate to where we think that it’s clean and then we’ll take confirmation sampling and send that to the lab to show that, yes, we are clean or that we need to continue the process.”
Scott said he doesn’t know how long it will take to remove all the affected materials. While it’s hard to find a silver lining in a situation like this, Scott said at least the spill material was diesel, which is, to an extent, a good thing.
“No one wants to have a fuel release or a chemical release to the environment, but as far as that kind of release, diesel, it’s a petroleum hydrocarbon. It’s a long chain of carbons with hydrogens hooked on it. Especially with gasoline, it volatilizes. It breaks down. Diesel doesn’t break down as quick as gasoline, but it does.
“That range of organic compounds don’t last in the environment all that long,” he continued. “Once again, I don’t want to down-play, you don’t want any kind of spill, but it’s something that if you can contain it, remove the source, it’s not very pervasive in the environment. The thing is, diesel is a light, non-acquiesce phase liquid, meaning it’s lighter than water. It floats. That’s the reason why you see booms. You collect everything on top. It’s not in the bottom.”
Cardno will report to the DEP throughout the cleanup process. It is up to the DEP to determine when the area is once again diesel-free.
“We would make sure that the clean-up was done appropriately and that there is no more risk of contamination in the river,” DEP spokesperson Tom Aluise said. “If we think more needs to be done, we would let them know and they would have to do it. We’ll make sure it’s done correctly and remediated to the fullest extent it can be.”
The water and surrounding organics were not the only affected area. The bridge suffered a serious amount of damage that may lead to reconstruction.
A diesel fire burns so hot, it changes the structure of asphalt and concrete. The asphalt at the center of the fire melted with pieces of the truck in it, and the concrete section of the bridge wall that was in the fire was so compromised, it will crumble when picked up or handled.
“That’s spalling – what you call it when you put hot fuels on it like oils or diesel fuels. That will do that to concrete,” Varner said. “It makes the concrete hot and it pops.”
The section of the bridge wall also crumbled away enough to reveal the rebar at its core.
After the clean-up is finished, the Department of Highways will inspect the bridge to determine whether the bridge will be repaired or replaced.
“They have to see if the fire heat stressed the steel girders,” DOH Civil Engineer Cameron Barkley said. “Of course, if it’s heat stress, it weakens them and if it weakened them too much, they’ll have to be replaced.”
The DOH will do core drilling on the bridge to see how much damage the bridge suffered.
The bridge was built in 1997 and was treated with a latex overlay in 2003.
The accident was investigated by West Virginia State Trooper D.M. Brock. The driver escaped from the accident with a scratch on his thumb and a sore shoulder. Brock said he concluded that the incident was an accident, and he is not pressing charges against the driver.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org