BANGOR, Maine — A routine stop by a Bangor oil company to empty the tank of a customer who is converting his heating system to natural gas turned into a hazardous materials cleanup Wednesday on French Street.
The day had started off like most normal days for Bangor resident Forrest Mulheron III, who resides at 250 French St. with his son Forrest IV and 81-year-old mother, Yvonne. It ended like anything but.
The network engineer for Capital Computers had to go to Augusta to work and his son was headed to Emergency Medical Technician classes at Eastern Maine Community College. Yvonne remained home, expecting an oil truck from Webber Energy Fuels to come by and take the remaining home heating oil out of the storage tank in the basement, as the Mulherons are converting their nearly 100-year-old, two-story house to use natural gas for heat and hot water.
At about 9 a.m., Mulheron’s mother called to tell him that the truck had accidentally overflowed the tank, spilling what he said Maine Department of Environmental Protection representatives told him was an estimated 30 to 40 total gallons of oil onto his driveway and into his cellar.
“My mom called and said, ‘Are you busy?’ That’s what she always says, and I said I wasn’t,” Mulheron recalled. “She said Webber was here pumping oil out of the tank and they pumped it into the cellar and the driveway. I was in Augusta, so there wasn’t much I could do.”
Mulheron called his son and he left classes early to come home.
“Apparently the truck was too full to take all the oil out of the tank, which was about three-quarters full,” said Mulheron IV, adding that he spoke to a few representatives of Dead River Co. — Webber’s parent company — as well as the driver. “That caused an overflow and when the driver realized what was going on, he said he turned everything off but didn’t shut off one of the valves, which caused a backflow spill or something that siphoned oil back into the tank and out into the basement.”
If that wasn’t enough to worry about, Mulheron III got another call from Mark Ouellette, Dead River’s field service manager, after 10 a.m. informing him that his mother had collapsed and would be taken by ambulance to the hospital for observation.
“My mom has respiratory problems from COPD and apparently she collapsed in the driveway from the fumes,” Mulheron said.
Mulheron said his mother was in stable condition late Wednesday afternoon but wouldn’t be allowed to return home for three or four days until the fumes were all gone. Both Mulheron and his son were put up in a local hotel for the night by Dead River.
Dead River workers cleaned up most of the spillage on the driveway shortly after the spill and immediately called the DEP, which dispatched a six-man cleanup crew and 20-ton vacuum truck from Clean Harbors Environmental Services in Hampden.
“I got here and there was a Webber truck in the driveway that pulled out as I arrived,” Mulheron III said. “The tank truck had already gone.”
A State of Maine Oil & Hazmat Spill Response vehicle arrived shortly after Mulheron III.
Cleanup crews were digging and cleaning up from 12:30 to 6 p.m.
“The driveway isn’t a large concern because it didn’t sink down very low. They got to it quick, and the only thing we may have to do is take some more soil off the top,” said John Selleck, a DEP professional engineer and oil and hazardous materials specialist. “We’ve installed a venting system, we’re digging the oil-contaminated earth from the basement, and I’ll have them take some more dirt off the driveway just to be sure.”
Selleck, who estimated it would take two or three days to complete the cleanup, said groundwater contamination shouldn’t be a major concern since the homes on the street are all connected to the city water system, but oil vapors were heavy inside the house.
Selleck couldn’t say if any charges would be filed.
“I’ll be filing a report on Dead River having a spill today. I don’t find fault or anything like that,” he said. “I just oversee the cleanup and make sure it’s done thoroughly and to the best of everyone’s ability. It’s up to someone higher than me in Maine DEP to decide if there may be any fines or punishment.”
Dead River Brand and Marketing Manager Lisa Morrissette released the following company statement Wednesday afternoon: “This morning the company experienced an oil spill at a French Street, Bangor residence and immediately contacted the DEP. We are looking into exactly what caused the spill and working with the DEP on the cleanup.”
While Mulheron and his son were appreciative of the quick response to the spill by Dead River and the Maine DEP, and the assistance Dead River provided their mother and grandmother, Yvonne, they were upset about the costly mistake.
“To me, it’s just negligence,” said Mulheron III. “If you’re going to put five gallons of water in a container, you better make sure your empty container is at least five gallons.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in the photo caption. The homeowner pictured is Forrest Mulheron III, not John Mulheron III.