Traffic crawls after truck carrying sea snails crashes on I-95

Posted Oct. 25, 2012, at 8:13 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 26, 2012, at 5:53 p.m.

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NEWPORT, Maine — Traffic slowed to a snail’s pace over a mile-long stretch of I-95 south Thursday after a tractor-trailer truck carrying a load of processed whelks crashed, spilling half its load.

“We’re still investigating the cause, but around 5 a.m., a 2012 Freightliner tractor-trailer truck traveling south left the travel lane and went into the median,” said Maine State Trooper Kyle Willette. “It struck the built-up crossover and vaulted into the air a short distance before coming to rest on the other side of the crossover.”

The crash occurred near near the Ridge Road in Newport.

The truck driver, 51-year-old Arthur Wittneben of Ridge, N.Y., was transported by ambulance to Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield with what Willette called unspecified injuries that were not life-threatening. Nurses at the hospital were unable to provide an update on Wittneben’s condition early Thursday evening.

“He was hauling whelks, which were processed and frozen in Milbridge,” said Willette. “They’re a type of sea snail which my grandfather, who was a lobsterman, used to call wrinkles.”

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources website, the waved or common whelk is now part of an emerging cottage industry in the Gulf of Maine. The common subtidal species of snail that can be found along the western Atlantic coast used to be considered incidental catch material and either thrown back to the sea or disposed of. Now, they’re helping fuel an emerging market for pickled meats and shell ornaments.

Last year, buyer reports showed about 40,500 pounds of whelks were caught in the Gulf of Maine, with harvesters paying about $24,600 for them.

Although most of the mess was spilled in the median and shoulder, the passing lane had to be closed down for cleanup, which involved half of the truck’s load — packaged in cartons and pallets — oil and fuel. People and equipment from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Clean Harbors cleanup company, the Maine Department of Agriculture and Bouchard’s Towing service took part in the cleanup effort, which lasted about seven hours.

Travel was limited to one lane from 10:30 a.m. to approximately 5:30 p.m., Willette said.

“Traffic was backed up to Exit 161 for about a mile during afternoon rush time around 5 p.m.,” said Willette.

Willette said excessive speed and alcohol were ruled out as causes of the crash.

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