TEXAS--Workers Race to Contain Huge Gas Spill Before it Threatens Drinking Water

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Workers race to contain huge gas spill before it reaches lake

Half-million-gallon overflow threatens Dallas' drinking water supply


By Randy Lee Loftis / The Dallas Morning News

WAGNER, Texas - Foiled Friday by heavy rain and lightning, salvage crews struggled Saturday to stop a half-million-gallon gasoline spill that spread down a creek toward Lake Tawakoni, a drinking water supply for Dallas and other cities.

Dallas closed its water intake at the lake as a precaution, Dallas Water Utilities inspectors on the scene said. Crews were trying to keep any gasoline from reaching the lake, but it wasn't known by late Saturday whether that effort would succeed.

Lines of storms that moved across the flat Hunt County farmland Friday morning filled East Caddo Creek beyond its banks, bursting through temporary floating dams that crews had used to span the creek since a 24-inch pipeline broke about midnight Friday.

The water "built up and built up and pretty much washed out every dam we had," said Greg Fife, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A heavy odor of gasoline filled the air at the creek's crossing at Interstate 30, about four miles southwest of Greenville and about 10 miles downstream from the spill site.

Storms that had frustrated salvage attempts Friday morning and afternoon yielded Saturday to clear skies that threatened no rain. But the damage from the previous downpours, which cut visibility almost to zero, was done.

As salvage workers watched the rain-swollen creek carry away their efforts to contain the spill Friday, they faced a potential danger to themselves - lightning.

Gasoline fumes reached potentially explosive levels in some places, meaning that a single strike into the creek might have set off a fiery catastrophe that could have killed workers and started a pipeline blaze, Mr. Fife said.

At times, officials had to call off the effort to recover gasoline, he said.

"We had a choice between protecting a water supply and protecting lives," he said. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, which probes pipeline accidents, were at the spill site Saturday searching for the cause of the leak.

The pipeline's owner and operator is Explorer Pipeline Co. of Tulsa, Okla. The line, built in 1973 and last tested three years ago, is buried about four feet underground.

Crews from the pipeline company arrived with digging equipment and new sections of pipe to start preparing to repair the line. Petroleum tank trucks arrived to haul off contaminated water pumped from the creek.

At FM3211, about five miles south of the spill site, two tank trucks were pumping contaminated water from the creek's surface. Several flexible yellow booms crossed the creek, holding back the gasoline so the pumps could retrieve it.

However, gasoline was visible in the water as it passed the booms, forming distinctive swirls of petroleum sheen on the swift-moving water. Tank truck operators said more trucks were trying to retrieve gasoline farther downstream.

The first sign of trouble came about midnight Friday when the pipeline's monitors detected a drop in pressure. Local residents reported smelling gasoline in the creek.

The spill occurred about 10 miles northwest of Greenville in a sparsely populated rural area. Mr. Fife said most homes in the area are served by public water supplies and faced no apparent threat from the spill.

Crews from Garner Environmental of Fort Worth were putting two temporary dams in place by about 4 a.m. Friday, and had two more up by about 9 a.m., Mr. Fife said.

That early work apparently succeeded. The dams closest to the spill were holding back pure gasoline, while those farther downstream had only water, he said.

Then the rain came, lasting about two hours. Trucks, hauling collection tanks, nearly slid off a dirt road. By that time, Mr. Fife said, the gasoline was heading downstream.

"What we had was basically a river flowing with gasoline in it," he said. If gasoline reached the lake, Mr. Fife said, the actual petroleum in the water would be the short-term concern for water supplies. In the longer term, worries might focus on a gasoline additive known as MTBE.

MTBE is an additive meant to help clean the air in polluted urban areas such as North Texas. The substance is a significant threat to water supplies, however, and the EPA is phasing it out.

"We're trying as hard as we can to keep it out of the lake," Mr. Fife said. "If it gets down there, there could be a problem."


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 12, 2000


The "Rest of the Story" minus the sensationalism:

Cynthia Fanning, spokeswoman for the EPA office in Dallas, said the spill had been contained by diking and damming the creek. Floating sponges or booms have been placed on the creek to soak up any gasoline, which is lighter than water and floats. Lake Tawakoni, which provides drinking water to the area, was also not contaminated, Barrett said. The cleanup could take up to a week. It's not known how much the cleanup could cost. http://www.fox4news.com/dynamic/story.asp?category=2

-- cpr (buytexas@swbell.net), March 12, 2000.

Great input CPR. Thank you.

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 12, 2000.

MTBE... Mankind's Nemesis... IMHO...


The Dog

-- The Dog (dogdesert@hotmail.com), March 12, 2000.

I posted the Chronicle article on this item yesterday. As a resident in Pipe City, I can tell you for a fact there's no such thing as hype. We're the last to know, and the only way we get information is by confontation. Better safe than sorry. If there are potential problems, I want to know. I have a family to take care of. My heart goes out to D-FW. Those folks need to keep the heat on their EPA people. But if you ingest contaminated water for a week without knowing, the result's going to be the same as if you were informed.

Excuse me for being harsh, but I remember Agent Orange.

-- charlie (cml@workmail.com), March 12, 2000.

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