Wednesday, June 25, 2003

State wants bigger fine for jet fuel spill

Published in the Current and the American Journal

The state Department of Environmental Protection has rejected a proposed settlement from the insurance company representing the trucking firm responsible for an April 7 jet fuel spill in South Portland and will now assess damages.

“At this point, we wouldn’t be negotiating. We’d hand them the bill,” said John Wathen, regional director for the DEP. The DEP will determine the amount based on what is expected to be a year-long study on the impact the spill had on the surrounding environment.

Both parties had hoped to reach a settlement, but the insurance company made “an insufficient offer,” according to Wathen, who said before negotiations collapsed that he was looking for “something in the six-figure range.”

Sean Dundon, the environmental-impact insurance adjuster representing the trucking company, expected it to be “less than $100,000.”

The DEP already has taken several aerial photos of the damage to the marsh grasses near the site of the incident in which a fuel tanker truck overturned on Broadway, spilling 6,000 gallons of jet fuel into the street and culverts leading to the Fore River. The accident occurred right in front of the fire and police station.

In the next two weeks, scientists will be collecting samples from the shellfish and sediment in the area and analyzing them to determine how much fuel remains in the environment and what the spill’s lasting effects will be.

“This is a process. There are a lot of things we’re going to do,” Wathen said. “All of the costs will start going on the tab.”

He said the bill, which would include staff time and lab fees as well as compensation for the environmental damage, could be as much as $500,000.

Dundon said his understanding from the DEP was that the April 7 spill was “much smaller” than the Julie N spill in 1996, which released 180,000 gallons of crude oil into Portland Harbor when a tanker hit the Casco Bay Bridge. The cleanup cost $50 million, and the DEP fine, $1 million, was finally agreed upon in 2000.

The driver of the truck in the April 7 accident, Michael McCarthy, 43, of Berwick, was given a summons for imprudent speed, a charge carrying a $98 fine.

“There is some (lasting) damage,” Wathen said. It is limited to the cove to which the spill was contained and can be seen in growth differences between marsh grasses in the area and uncontaminated places nearby.

“We’re concerned about shellfish in the mud” as well, Wathen said.

He said the study is worthwhile not only for this case, but also because jet fuel spills are relatively rare. Gathering more information about the impact of jet fuel on the environment could help people dealing with future spills, here or elsewhere.

Jet fuel is far more volatile than crude oil, which can stick on wildlife or other surfaces for months. Much of the fuel evaporated during the days after the spill, and about 40 percent of it was collected during the post-accident cleanup.

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