1,000-gallon fuel spill contaminates Pleasant River and salmon hatchery

Posted March 29, 2011, at 5:07 p.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 8:53 a.m.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — At least 1,000 gallons of off-road diesel fuel leaked from a truck at Foss Construction Co. overnight Monday, sending fuel into the Middle River, the Pleasant River and through vital smelt spawning beds.

“This is a mess,” Robert Shannon of the Department of Environmental Protection said while overseeing the cleanup. Shannon said his crew and Clean Harbors Inc. would be on site for days and it could be weeks before the fuel dissipates from the 3½  miles of affected river.

“It’s kind of like the perfect storm,” Shannon said. “We have a ground spill that enters a brook, which feeds a stream [that flows] into one river that connects with another and ends up at a fish hatchery and spawning grounds.”

Even the weather was too good, he said. “If it would rain, it would help dissipate the fuel,” he said.

The liquid spilled from a broken fuel pump on a tanker truck parked at Foss Construction, which has been operating from Tibbettstown Road for 45 years.

Randall Foss said the company “will clean it up and go on. We are stepping up, accepting responsibility and doing whatever we have to do.”

Foss said his company was insured for the cleanup costs, which he estimated at $15,000 to $20,000.

By early afternoon, 28 yards of contaminated soil had been removed from the company’s yard, and 300 gallons of diesel fuel had been recovered from the ground.

DEP’s attention, however, was strongly focused downstream at the Pleasant River Hatchery, operated by the Down East Salmon Federation, where the river empties into a saltwater estuary and millions of smelt eggs were being deposited by spawning smelt.

The smell of fuel was heavy in the air both inside and outside the hatchery and a sheen was visible on the river.

“This is not good,” said Dwayne Shaw, the hatchery director.

A major research project at the hatchery has been compromised, Shaw said, and the fate of 135,000 hatching salmon eggs in a laboratory is unknown.

“We shut down the intake pipes from the river,” Shaw said, “but we don’t know if we did it in time.”

Shaw said hundreds of smolts, young salmon, have been raised in the hatchery for two years as part of a research project documenting the effects of acid rain in New England.

“They were just about to be released,” Shaw said.

Although he said the research will still be documented, it has been compromised by the introduction of the fuel into the fish’s water.

Shaw said that outside the hatchery, millions of smelt eggs were getting ready to hatch in the gravel beds at the mouth of the Pleasant River.

“This is some of the best smelt spawning habitat on the East Coast,” Shaw said. “And they are spawning right now.”

Alongside the river, in an ancient smelt shack, smelt harvester Sewell Look, 73, was readying his gill nets for another night of fishing. He is one of only eight commercial smelt fishermen still harvesting on the East Coast.

“We could smell it last night when we were pulling the nets. Then we could see it on the water,” Look said. Look has been fishing for smelts for 60 years, since he was 13, he said. He sells to private customers, restaurants and grocery stores.

“But now I’m some worried about it,” he said. Monday night wasn’t a good night for him — he hauled in 98 pounds of smelts, compared with 262 pounds on March 23 — and Look said he is worried about how the fuel will affect the last two days of the harvest.

“And what about those eggs?” he asked. “That’s next year’s catch.”

Shannon said the DEP will remain at the scene for several days, digging up the contaminated soil and fuel at the source. Already four booms have been stretched across the rivers to slow the flow. Shannon said DEP personnel will walk the entire length of the waterways from the spill to the sea as part of the mitigation.

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