Final fuel spill cleanup near Paxson may be delayed

An estimated 4,329 gallons of diesel fuel leaked out of the forward compartment of a 10,000-gallon fuel tank that overturned when the driver wrecked on Jan. 10 around milepost 164.4 of the Richardson Highway. No fuel leaked from a 5,000-gallon secondary “pup trailer” that the double-tanker truck was also pulling.
(Photo: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

Cleanup has resumed along a stretch of the Richardson Highway near Paxson, where more than 4,000 gallons of diesel was spilled when a Fairbanks-based tanker wrecked in January. But it may take years to clean up all the contamination.

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About 4,300 gallons of diesel spilled when the Colville Transport double-tanker truck hit the ditch on Jan. 9th near milepost 164 of the Richardson Highway, about 20 miles south of Paxson. Colville and its cleanup contractors began work on the spill, but soon realized they’d be unable to remove all of the contaminated material, because the fuel had soaked into the roadbed on which the highway was built.

“The release that occurred at milepost 164 is specifically complicated, because it did run under the roadway,” Ashley Adamczak said. She’s an environmental program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation office in Fairbanks. “And short of digging up the Richardson Highway, then there’s going to be a contamination mass that’s left behind.”

Adamczak said DEC officials are overseeing resumption of the cleanup, and she said the agency, along with Colville and its contractors, are working with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which administers the land outside of the highway right-of-way, to figure out how to remove as much contaminated material as possible without creating additional problems.

“What’s the slope, the excavation that we can do without causing a potential safety hazard for the Richardson Highway stabilization?” Adamczak said. “How much vegetation can we remove from the surface, and how far out can we go and disturb that area for the landowners?”

Adamczak said DEC along with Colville and its contractors also have been coordinating with the state Department of Transportation on cleaning up the contamination. She said officials with the two agencies also are talking about completing the cleanup when the Transportation Department rebuilds that section of highway, as it’s been doing on some of the worst stretches of the road over the several years.

“When they do rebuild that section of the road,” Adamczak said, “what can we kind of anticipate on the front end to get ready for that removal of soil when they do rebuild the road?”

Transportation department spokeswoman Meadow Bailey confirmed there’ve been discussions with DEC on the cleanup and its complications.

“We recognize that there is an issue there, and we’re trying to design some solutions or some mitigation,” Bailey said. She confirmed the department’s list of projects includes one calling for reconstruction of the Richardson from milepost 159 to 167.

“The Rich 159 through 167 is currently in design,” Bailey said. “There are additional Richardson Highway projects that are also in the design phase. That said, construction is probably several years out. And there currently is not funding identified for construction.”

Adamczak said Colville and its contractors are expected to remove some 1,300 cubic yards of soil and vegetation from areas alongside the highway before breakup, if possible. That’s more than 50 truckloads with a semi/tractor-pulled dump trailer.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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