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Work Under Way to Prevent Spilled Diesel From Spreading into Wetland, Birch Lake

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

Updated: An second situation report issued Wednesday afternoon by the Alaska Department of Conservation says the amount of diesel recovered from the spill now totals just over 3,500 gallons, down from the previous estimate of 5,000 gallons. DEC also says frequent monitoring of the area affected by the spill shows it had grown in size, indicating the spilled fuel continues to spread.

Cleanup work continues today near Birch Lake where a tractor-trailer tank loaded with 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel overturned Monday, spilling the fuel into a ditch that runs between a small wetland and the Richardson Highway. The workers are trying to keep fuel from seeping into the wetland or the lake. 

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on-site coordinator Tom DeRuyter says workers on Tuesday suctioned just over 14,400 gallons of fuel-and-water mix from a ditch just south of the roadside pulloff to the Birch Lake State Recreation Site. DeRuyter says they also plugged some culverts that runs under that stretch of the Richardson Highway to prevent contaminated water from flowing in to Birch Lake. (ADEC Situation Report PDF here)

“No oil has been seen on the lake,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Is there oil infiltrating underneath the roadway? I suspect there is.”

DeRuyter says workers pushed up dirt berms to limit fuel from flowing into the wetland. He says the marshy area sits a bit higher than the lake, so he thinks the fuel is more likely to flow downgradient in the other direction.

Credit ADEC
Workers removed 11,020 gallons of fuel mixed water from the spill site  mix, and are now building a small road into the adjacent wetland to enable equipment to get in and remove contaminated soil. The overturned tanker is barely visible toward the upper-right corner.

“It all goes toward the lake,” he said, “and that’s why the culverts are plugged and … we’re watching those to make sure no oil gets into the culvert system.”

DeRuyter says tests will be conducted to determine whether diesel leaked into the wetland or lake. He says the first priority is removing fuel and contaminated soil, which is why workers began building a roadway Tuesday to enable equipment to get in to the area to begin excavating.

“We still have pure fuel that’s leaking out of the vegetative mat and is forming pools on-site,” he said. “We need to get rid of that and the heavily contaminated soil and the vegetation that’s hold the oil and allowing it to leak out slowly. And that’s really the first step in this process.”

DEC and Alaska State Troopers both are investigating the spilland the equipment failure that apparently led to it. Troopers say there were no injuries. DEC says it hasn’t received any reports of wildlife being affected by the fuel.

Credit ADEC
Alaska State Troopers and investigators with the state Transportation Department's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement office are looking into the cause of Monday's crash. The equipment failure that caused the rear tank to separate from the tanker that was pulling it may have occurred when the tip of the tongue that connected the tank to the towing tanker tore off. Troopers won't issue a report on the cause for at least a week.

A Trooper spokesperson couldn’t yet provide specifics, but says it appears the driver was not speeding. Photos taken by DEC show what appeared to be jagged edges around the tip of the tongue that connected the rear tank to the tanker truck – which was carrying another 9,000 gallons of diesel.

Troopers say the Big State Logistics tanker was just rounding the bend of the long curve along the southern shore of Birch Lake around 1 p.m. Monday when somehow the trailer in tow broke loose, hit the ditch and overturned. ADEC says the tank had multiple punctures and that most if not all of the 5,000 gallons of diesel in the tank quickly leaked out.

Mark Lockwood says he saw the tanker approach as he sitting in his truck at the intersection of Lost Lake Road, waiting to get onto the highway and get back to Fairbanks.

“The fuel truck got past me,” he said, “I looked again, nobody was coming, pulled out. And the fuel truck was pulling over to the side of the road – sans trailer, and a hitch dangling. And so I just missed seeing that happen.”

A DEC news release says crews and equipment will be working around the cleanup site today, and that flaggers will be controlling traffic along that stretch of the highway around milepost 306.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include new information provided Wednesday by DEC. It includes the amount of fuel-water mix removed from the spill site -- just over 14,400 gallons, up from the original estimate of about 11,000 gallons. 

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.