State finds violations in Chapel Hill gas spill

tgrubb@newsobserver.comAugust 16, 2013 

— State officials will cite a gas station owner and a contractor renovating the business Monday with violating state regulations related to an Aug. 1 gasoline spill.

The businesses will be notified by certified letter, and the state will wait for their responses before deciding any fines, said Danny Smith, regional supervisor for surface water quality with the State Division of Water Resources. The division is part of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Smith said they still don’t know how much gas was released into Crow Branch Creek behind the Family Fare BP at 1201 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Most of the gas was cleaned up, and the damage was limited because of the quick response by fire, police and town officials, Smith and Division of Water Resources consultant Autumn Romanski said. She used maps and GPS to test creeks and check fish populations after the spill. The help she got navigating local roads was “invaluable” and the cleanup went “pretty well,” she said. There were gas vapors in a few places and a dead fish along Booker Creek in the North Lakeshore Drive area. A resident also called the town about a dead fish in Crow Branch Creek, she said.

“(Local officials) were all knowledgeable about what to do, which ... certainly prevented it being worse than it was,” Romanski said.

Only two of the four sites tested – Crow Branch Creek near Critz Drive, Booker Creek near North Lakeshore Drive, Eastwood Lake, and Booker Creek near Daley Drive – showed contamination, according to a report provided Wednesday to Chapel Hill town officials.

The report showed a “huge amount” of toluene polluting Crow Branch Creek behind the BP station. There were slightly higher than acceptable levels in Booker Creek above Eastwood Lake, but no gas reached the lake, the report said.

Toluene and other chemicals in gasoline can kill aquatic life, depending on the concentration in the water. Since gas floats, it also can leave a soapy sheen on the creek banks for several weeks, EPA officials said.

The station’s 6,000-gallon fiberglass tank only held about 3,200 gallons at the time of the accident. Most of that gas leaked out, but not all of it reached the creek, Smith said.

Lee Barnes, president of gas station owner M.M. Fowler Inc., based in Durham, was not available for comment. Officials with Bishop Construction Co. in Hillsborough also were not available for comment.

Smith said the companies’ response to the state’s findings will help create a more complete record of what happened when the gas tank ruptured.

The fiberglass tank usually sits underground in a gravel pit and under a concrete slab. However, crews renovating the store had dug a hole for a new canopy footing, and rain sent gravel to the bottom of the exposed pit between 2 and 5 a.m. Aug. 1. A piece of the concrete slab broke off and punctured the tank, Smith said.

The gasoline mixed with rain water as the hole filled, activating a sump pump that sent the mixture through a pipe to the town’s stormwater drain and into the creek. A police officer smelled gasoline around 5 a.m. and shut off the pump, according to Julie McClintock, with Friends of Bolin Creek.

State law allows people to pump some water into stormwater systems, such as from hydrants, pools or construction groundwater, but it became a violation when the gas reached the creek, Smith said.

The Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded immediately to help the town set up dams on Crow Branch and Booker creeks. They also placed drain pipes to skim gasoline off the water’s surface and absorbent booms to capture any residual gasoline. The town got permission from the EPA to remove the dams more than a week ago, but the absorbent booms will remain for a while, officials said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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