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Plummer petroleum spill cleanup to take 10 more days

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PLUMMER, Minn. -- Cleanup of a March 31 petroleum spill near Plummer, Minn., is likely to continue another 10 days as workers remove contaminated soil from the ditch along U.S. Highway 59.

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About 30,000 gallons of a petroleum product called pyrolysis gasoline poured into a ditch along the highway after a tractor-trailer struck a Canadian Pacific Railway train, puncturing a tanker car and killing the truck's 65-year-old driver.

Remediation contractors hired by CP have been removing contaminated soil from the ditch and hauling it to a storage area on a nearby piece of land for further processing, said railway and state officials.

Highway 59 has been closed just south of Plummer since the accident and will remain closed as long as excavators, trucks and other equipment are working on the road. Traffic is diverted along a 7-mile detour.

"These spills are all different, all a mess," said Doug Bellefeuille of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Emergency Response Program. "There's no sugarcoating it, it's a mess."

Cleanup process

Bellefeuille, who is based in Detroit Lakes, Minn., was at the spill site the morning of the accident to develop a remediation plan with CP.

The large amount of soil that has to be removed from the site makes it a long process, he said.

"It'll be thousands of cubic yards," Bellefeuille said.

Being next to a highway has made the spill inconvenient for the 2,150 drivers the Minnesota Department of Transportation said use the road each day.

But Bellefeuille said it was fortunate the spill was isolated from a water source. During a spring with a normal amount of snow runoff, it would likely have flowed into the nearby Clearwater River.

"At least it wasn't in town or near a lake or river," Bellefeuille said.

Environmental contractors have been monitoring soil, groundwater, surface water and the air for levels of benzene, the hazardous ingredient in pyrolysis gas and the cause of a strong odor reported after the smell.

Air quality monitors have been set up at the spill site and in Plummer and have not registered any levels that would pose a health risk, even at the spill site, Bellefeuille said.

There has been groundwater contamination, but it does not appear that it reached any drinking water source, he said.

Cleanup workers for CP vacuumed up the spilled liquid and surface water. The railway company began removing the contaminated soil last week, CP spokesman Ed Greenberg said, and are now hauling it to an area sealed off with dikes and a protective lining.

The soil will have to be shipped to a hazardous waste disposal site but CP could decide to burn off much of the benzene from the soil.

Greenberg called the cleanup cost "substantial," but did not provide a figure.

"Costs are being paid by CP at this time, but reimbursement by the trucking company will be expected," Greenberg said.

The driver of the truck, 65-year-old Dale Buzzell of Isanti, Minn., died in the accident. Red Lake County Sheriff Mitch Bernstein said an autopsy on Buzzell is being performed to see if a medical problem caused him to run into the train.

Highway closing necessary

Residents of Plummer, a town of around 300, said the cleanup has been going smoothly, if not quickly.

"Nobody's called me with any complaints about anything," said Mayor Jim Kelley. "Usually I'm the first one to hear it if anything's wrong around town."

CP representatives held a public meeting for residents and have mailed information to each household in town, Kelley said.

Fire Chief Philip Zimpel was one of the first to respond to the accident, which happened around 3 a.m. He said the closing of Highway 59 has been inconvenient for drivers, but it was necessary for the remediation.

"It's a hassle, I guess, but there's no way to prevent it," he said. "They're taking out a petty sizable area of land. It's so much easier when there's no cars going by."

The presence of the remediation crews has provided some help to the town's economy. Cindy Jaeger-Arlt, owner of Li'l Joe's Café in Plummer, said she was preparing up to 50 lunches a day for the workers.

"They kept me open another month," she said.

Though the month-long remediation is a large job, it a fraction of the size of a 1998 pipeline accident near Plummer. In that incident, a backhoe ruptured a pipeline, releasing 200,000 gallons of crude oil into a field and a ditch that flows into the Clearwater River.

"That cleanup took years," Bellefeuille said.

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Pioneer staff reports
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