WALLAGRASS, Maine — It’s been more than a year since a tanker truck overturned on Route 11, spilling 5,000 gallons of gasoline. After months of work, the Department of Environmental Protection has declared well water in the area safe.
But local residents Roger and Juanita Belanger say their home remains uninhabitable. And, worse, they can’t sell it.
“Would you buy a house that had a gas spill that close to it?” he asked. “Would you buy a place that was impacted and maybe could be again if more gas seeps in?”
On May 31, 2011, a fuel truck owned by John T. Noble of Caribou, hauling gas for Daigle Oil Co. in Fort Kent, overturned on Route 11 traveling south about five miles outside of Fort Kent.
DEP workers were on the scene quickly to contain the gas spill, which directly affected several residences in the immediate area.
Over the next several months DEP worked with Stantec, an environmental consultant hired by the trucking company’s insurance company to handle site remediation.
By September, roughly 1,200 gallons of gas had been recovered, monitoring wells had been dug, and a vapor extraction system and a double carbon filtration system were installed in the Belanger home, in which crews found the presence of petroleum compounds above maximum exposure guidelines.
Filters also were installed in eight other nearby homes as a precautionary measure and, at the time, DEP spokesperson Samantha Depoy-Warren said, “The water coming from that well is safe [and] we also put those carbon filtration systems at eight other homes just to be as protective as possible. The water supply is very safe.”
The DEP is holding what is expected to be the final public hearing on the cleanup efforts next week. The agency is partnering with Wallagrass town officials to host the meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 12, at the Wallagrass Elementary School.
‘I am not willing to take a chance’
DEP may have declared the water safe last year, but Roger Belanger is unconvinced and continues to wait for action from the parties he feels are responsible for the fact that he can no longer live in his home.
He and his wife, both retirees, moved into their new Route 11 home in 2007. Now he claims that, despite heroic efforts on the parts of Stantec and DEP, his home is not only unlivable, it is unsellable.
“They tell me the water is safe to drink and they put in those filtration systems,” Belanger said. “But I had esophageal cancer and I am not willing to take a chance drinking it.”
Immediately after the spill, the Belangers and their neighbors moved into temporary housing, staying with friends or family or at local hotels.
By the end the summer, after environmental cleanup efforts, all were back home. But Belanger claims he and his wife could only live in their home a short time before Juanita became ill and they had to move out again.
While still in the house, the couple worried continually about fumes and air quality.
“We didn’t know if gas fumes were getting in during the night,” Belanger said. “Imagine how it feels to sleep in a house and not know if you are going to wake up.”
Despite the presence of the filters and bottled water, he said they believed conditions were not safe.
“We still had to shower with that water and my wife is bothered by allergies,” Belanger said. “It was making her sick so we had to get out of there.
The house now stands empty and the Belangers are living in a recently purchased home in Fort Kent.
That move, Belanger said, coupled with ongoing medical issues and related expenses stemming from the spill, has put the couple in a precarious financial situation. They are now paying mortgages, taxes and maintenance costs on two residences.
“We put the [Wallagrass] house up for sale a month before the spill,” Belanger said. “No one wants to buy that place now.”
According to Belanger, any interested buyers back off the moment they learn of the spill. The issue, he said, is one of perception, as he is confident DEP’s efforts have made the water safe to drink — for now.
In fact, the most recent DEP data Belanger received found the well “near low contamination, if any,” he said.
Last year, Belanger said he got lucky and was able to rent the entire house for two months to a crew of engineers working on a project at nearby University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“They were not worried about the spill,” he said. “They were engineers and understood how the filtration worked but not everybody does.”
Belanger recognizes the DEP data has declared the water safe, but said he does not feel like rolling the dice given his cancer history.
“You drink water and where does it go?” he said. “Right past the esophagus, where I had the cancer. I almost died once and I’m not willing to risk it now.”
It was Belanger’s hope that the owners of John T. Noble Trucking would come forward and offer to purchase the property.
“To date we have heard nothing from Noble Trucking,” Belanger said.
Reached Monday by phone, John Noble declined to comment on Belanger’s situation.
Regarding the overall spill, Belanger agrees with Depoy-Warren’s assessment that John Noble took immediate responsibility for the spill in addition to taking quick action to begin cleanup.
“I feel sorry for [Noble Trucking] that they had that accident,” Belanger said, “but who is feeling sorry for us? We did nothing wrong.”
Belanger hopes he may get some direct answers at the upcoming public meeting, which he said he and his attorney will attend.
According to a press release from DEP, the meeting will cover air and water monitoring data that demonstrates their progress and discuss how risks from contamination have greatly decreased across the site. Officials also will talk about changes to the remediation plan that residents can expect to see in the coming weeks and months.
Speakers will include the project manager, DEP’s regional director and municipal officials.
For more information about the Wallagrass spill and the ongoing remediation efforts in response, visit maine.gov/dep/spills and click on “Wallagrass Spill” under “Sites.”