WALLAGRASS, Maine — Though more than 2,300 gallons of gasoline spilled when a fuel truck overturned a year ago remains unaccounted for, officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection this week termed cleanup efforts a tremendous success and say they are ready to move on to a new operational phase.
“Our goal from the start was to provide permanent and lasting protection [to residents] in a cost-effective manner,” Andrew Flint, DEP’s project manager on the spill, told a handful of residents attending a public meeting at the Wallagrass school Thursday evening. “That remains our priority.”
On May 31, 2011, a tanker 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.
Since then, according to Flint, remediation efforts have centered on removal of gas chemicals from the ground and surface water.
“The vapor extraction and petroleum removal system has been a tremendous success,” Flint said. “Twenty-three hundred gallons of gasoline has been removed [and] the levels of contamination are way down.”
Gas also has dissipated through naturally occurring evaporation and diffusion.
Throughout the process, Flint said, DEP has monitored dozens of test wells and residential wells over a mile-long sampling area spreading out from the spill site.
He said drops in the levels of contaminants were documented as soon as the vapor extraction system went online on Sept. 1, 2011.
“Those levels plummeted,” Flint said. “Some of the [residential] wells almost immediately got close to meeting DEP drinking water standards.”
The most recent tests at the spill site show levels of contamination seven times below what they were immediately after the accident.
“Just to the north of that site the water started to meet drinking water standards in December,” Flint said.
John Noble, who is ultimately responsible for the cleanup costs, was in the audience Thursday night and declined to speak to the press or comment on those costs.
The DEP official stressed the main goal has never been the removal of as much gas as possible.
Rather, it has been to control the risk as much as possible.
“We have seen tremendous success across the whole site,” Flint said. “The [testing] results are going in one direction and that is down [and] that’s what success looks like to us.”
A well at the residence of Roger and Jaunita Belanger remains the only well directly affected by the spill with contaminants. Flint said a carbon filtration system remains in place and those levels also are dropping.
“In April we started not detecting [contaminants] in the Belanger well, but they showed up again in May,” Flint said. “But those levels are below DEP standards and that is a tremendous improvement [because] it means you can drink that water with filtration.”
Over the past several months overall levels of gas detected through monitoring have dropped enough that DEP officials believe an operational change is in order.
“Since this spring we have not recovered much gas at all,” Flint said. “That could mean there is not much left to pull out.”
If that’s the case, he said, it no longer is cost-effective to operate the costly vapor extraction system.
“It appears that doing what we are doing now is not going to move the ball forward much,” Flint said. “The risks are now under control.”
DEP now plans to remove the extraction systems, simplify surface water treatments while keeping backup systems in place in case continued monitoring indicates more aggressive steps are again needed.
“We plan on dialing things back,” Flint said. “This will be a phased approach with sound decisions based on continued monitoring.”
Flint stressed DEP officials were in this for the long haul as cleanup efforts will wind down very slowly and it may take years for activity to cease altogether.
“This will not end with a bang,” he said. “It will end more of with a whimper as we go quietly into the night.”
Long-term plans could call for new drinking water wells for some residents or continued filtration of existing wells.
This was good news for residents, despite lingering concerns about the long-term effects of the spill.
“We are glad to hear things are going well,” Wallagrass property owner Ken Theriault said. “But I don’t know if everyone is that comfortable.”
Theriault, who lives in Madawaska, grew up on his family’s farm, which is just south of the accident site along Route 11.
“We have questions about the value of the property,” he said. “If we go to try and sell that property after all this, we are going to have a problem.”
His neighbor Roger Belanger agreed, noting his home had been on the market for a month before the spill and several subsequent potential sales have fallen through.
Belanger has said health concerns about his drinking water forced he and his wife to move to a new home, thus incurring two mortgages.
“I don’t want to drink that water,” said Belanger, who suffered from esophageal cancer. “I don’t care how many filters you put on my well.”
Belanger, who stressed he holds no ill will toward the Nobles or the DEP, said he is frustrated by a system which he said does not take into account hardships experienced by residents affected by incidents such as the gas spill.
“The little people are paying the consequences,” Belanger said. “We have not done anything wrong.”
Flint said recourse is available through a state-administered third-party damages system, which is a more informal arena for affected parties to argue losses and economic impacts.
“My concern is the remaining 2,300 or so gallons of gas in the ground,” Theriault said. “Where did it go?”
Mother Nature, Flint said, most likely has taken care of much of it.
“You can’t underestimate the natural process in eliminating the gas from the environment,” he said. “We don’t know where it is, but we know where it isn’t and it is not in drinking water wells, it is not in nearby ponds or streams and it’s not running into the ditches.”
While no DEP official was willing to guarantee the total elimination of contaminants over a set period of time, they were unanimous in their opinion the threat is all but gone.
“I would be very surprised to see any contaminants left a year from now,” DEP hydrogeologist Paul Higgins said. “The concentrations we are seeing now are so low and the flow of water through the area is so great, it’s really taking care of it.”
Officials also promised they would not abandon the residents anytime soon.
“We are not going anywhere, you have my word on that,” DEP regional director Nick Archer said. “We are just a phone call away and that will not change.