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Trucking company agrees to cleanup plan for toxic spill

Roanoke Times - 9/20/2017

More than three years after a tanker truck crash spilled toxic embalming fluid off a steep mountain road in Roanoke County, a trucking company has agreed to fix the damage that remains.

Nichols Transport Inc. will replace about a half dozen contaminated private wells with water tanks and perform other cleanup work as part of an agreement reached Sept. 12 with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

On the morning of June 11, 2014, a Nichols Transport tractor-trailer hauling embalming fluid for distribution to local funeral homes overturned on the 4200 block of Jae Valley Road (Virginia 116) near Windy Gap.

The tanker split open from the impact, sending about 4,500 gallons of its load - identified by DEQ as formaldehyde, a key ingredient in embalming fluid - down a steep slope and in the direction of nearby homes.

About 20 homes and some businesses were evacuated and the road was shut down as emergency crews dealt with noxious fumes and runoff onto and under the ground. Nearly 12 hours later, residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Tests of the water in four wells between June 1014 and March 2015 showed no signs of formaldehyde, according to a consent order posted to DEQ's website last week.

But in November 2015, a well on Carr Rouse Road tested positive for the chemical. Nichols Transport has agreed to replace the home's well with a water tank. Efforts to reach the residents were unsuccessful.

Although only one contaminated well is mentioned in the consent order, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said Tuesday that a total of seven homes on Carr Rouse Road and Jae Valley Road have been provided 1,000-gallon water tanks that are connected to their plumbing systems. The tanks are refilled as needed.

Similar water supplies could be provided to other homes, based on groundwater monitoring results and guidance from DEQ, the consent order stated.

Ongoing tests show that formaldehyde is still present in the soil and groundwater, Hayden said.

But the levels are small, and state environmental officials have decided the best approach at this point is to allow the formaldehyde to dissipate naturally. Once tests show no detectable levels of the chemical, the affected residents can resume using their wells.

Meanwhile, Nichols Transport will be required to submit a corrective action plan that will include a "proposed human health risk-based cleanup goal," subject to DEQ approval.

Although details have yet to be worked out, the plan will likely include continued groundwater monitoring and the installation of more alternate water supplies if needed.

An official with Nichols Transport, which is based in Mullins, South Carolina, did not return messages left at the office Monday and Tuesday.

After a lengthy investigation, DEQ decided not to impose a fine against the company.

Hayden said that was partly because there was no specific violation of regulations, the way there might have been if a facility had exceeded the scope of its permitted releases. Instead, Nichols Transport was held responsible under a more general requirement that transporters clean up any hazardous waste that they spill.

Other factors considered by DEQ were the accidental nature of the spill and the fact that Nichols Transport has no record of other problems in Virginia, Hayden said.

Following the wreck, Nichols Transport truck driver David Howard Bennett pleaded guilty to failing to obey signs that barred through truck traffic on the twisting highway and failure to maintain control of his vehicle.

Bennett told a judge that he saw the signs as he approached Jae Valley Road, but there was no opportunity to turn his truck around on the S-curves of the mountain. New, more prominent signs have since been installed.

Although DEQ and Nichols Transport have reached an agreement, the agency will consider public comments through Oct. 17 before taking final action on the consent order.

Comments can be submitted by email to Robert.Steele@deq.virginia.gov, by fax to 540-562-6725 or by mail to the Department of Environmental Quality, 3019 Peters Creek Road, Roanoke, Va., 24019.

Staff writer Alicia Petska contributed to this report.

 
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