HEBRON, Maine — Classes at Hebron Station Elementary School have been canceled until further notice while the school district and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection deal with the fallout from a heating oil spill.
A DEP response team was on site Tuesday, determining the extent of the spill that occurred last week and how to proceed with a cleanup effort. Officials suspect most of the oil leached out of the tank room and into the soil and nearby wetlands.
In an interview at the school Tuesday morning, SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said 1,900 gallons of oil spilled out of the basement tank on Dec. 24 as it was being filled by a driver from the C.N. Brown oil company.
Classes, which were supposed to start Thursday after the holiday break, will be suspended until DEP determines the air and water quality are safe for students.
“We don’t have occupancy and we won’t have occupancy until DEP can confirm there is no oil in the water and there are no oil fumes in the building that could cause illness,” Colpitts said. The Oxford Hills School District is working on a contingency plan to send the school’s 140 kindergarten through grade six students to other schools if Hebron Station cannot open by Monday.
According to Colpitts, maintenance workers at the school asked C.N. Brown on Dec. 23 to fill the 2,000-gallon tank because the fuel gauge showed it was running low.
An oil truck came to fill the tank the next day, and pumped in about 160 gallons before a whistle that indicates there is more space in the tank, stopped blowing. Usually, Colpitts said, if the whistle stops it means the tank is full, but in this case, the fuel gauge continued to read empty, and the driver decided to continue pumping.
As a result, oil overflowed and sprayed out of several parts of the tank, filling its self-contained concrete bunker under the school with about a foot of oil.
According to Colpitts, the C.N. Brown worker discovered the mistake and assured the school that someone would be dispatched on the same day to pump out the spilled oil. A maintenance worker found a dry tank room when he checked on Dec. 25 and assumed the oil was pumped out.
The next day, however, C.N. Brown confirmed that the oil had not been pumped out, leading administrators to suspect the oil leaked out of the bunker, possibly through tiles installed around the building’s foundation to wick away moisture, Colpitts said. A DEP response team was dispatched to the school on Dec. 27.
C.N. Brown President Jinger Duryea, in a statement released Tuesday, said the company and its insurance carrier are working with DEP to assess the situation and get it cleaned up as soon as possible.
“We are terribly sorry and we regret the inconvenience this will cause, both to the students, their families and the personnel of Hebron (Station School),” Duryea said in a prepared statement.
Duryea was unavailable Tuesday afternoon to answer further questions about the spill.
DEP Oil and Hazardous Materials Responder Sheryl Bernard, on site Tuesday, said she and a team from Environmental Projects were taking soil samples from different depths around the school to locate where the spilled oil may have pooled.
“Once we determine where it is, we’ll be able to figure out the best way to clean it up,” Bernard said.
She said initial tests of the wetlands showed some oil, but far less than she expected.
Responders have also tested the school’s well and did not see or smell evidence of oil, Bernard said. Water samples have been sent for testing and the school is expected to be tested for air quality later this week.
“We’re proceeding with an abundance of caution,” Bernard said. “You have children here; you don’t want anybody exposed to this stuff.”
Bernard could not say when a cleanup would begin or how long it would be before students and personnel would be allowed to return to the school.
“No two of these are ever alike,” she said. “You just have to take them step by step. It’s like putting together a puzzle. You have to put all the pieces together before you can really get your head around it.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services