I-83 traffic back to normal

Federal, state officials vow probe of toxic leak from truck

April 15, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT AND NICK SHIELDS | LAURA BARNHARDT AND NICK SHIELDS,SUN REPORTERS

Traffic returned to normal yesterday on Interstate 83, as federal and state officials pledged to investigate the cause of a hazardous-waste leak in a truck that closed northbound lanes for 12 hours and disrupted the Thursday evening commute through northern Baltimore County.

The truck, owned by Ecoflo Inc. of Greensboro, N.C., was transporting 20 barrels of rocket fuel from a naval facility in Southern Maryland to Pennsylvania. The barrels had been packed with another chemical that was supposed to keep the volatile fuel stable, but one or more containers erupted or leaked inside the truck as it passed the Parkton exit early Thursday afternoon, triggering a shutdown of the highway and a laborious cleanup.

"There will be a thorough investigation looking at what caused the problem, whether it was the length of time of it was stored, the method of storage or some kind of temperature-chemical reaction," said Gary Wagner, a spokesman for the Naval Support Activity-South Potomac. "The Navy will look into all the factors to make sure this doesn't happen again."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were also reviewing the incident, as was the Maryland Department of the Environment. State police found minor problems with the truck's log but said the EPA would determine whether any charges would be filed in the case.

The rocket fuel, known as trinitromethane, was being transported from the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head in Charles County to a transfer station in York, Pa., where the materials were to have been put on another truck for shipment to a disposal facility in Greensboro, Department of Defense officials confirmed. The Indian Head facility is where the Navy develops, tests and researches explosive material used in the production of missiles, rockets and other weapons, Wagner, the Navy spokesman, said.

About 20 of the 72 barrels in the back of the Ecoflo truck contained trinitromethane, the rocket fuel, and urea, a neutralizing agent, said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.

But one of the barrels did not contain enough neutralizing agent, McIntire said. As a result, the liquid, filling several inches of the barrel, reacted chemically, forming nitric acid, a common but highly corrosive chemical that reacts violently with many metals.

"Typically, this chemical is banned from being transported, unless you neutralize it," McIntire said. He noted that the chemicals in at least two of the 30-gallon barrels had been packaged in 1995.

"That's the question--what happened with these two containers," he said, adding that there was no problem with other barrels filled with the chemicals.

The truck was also transporting 30 barrels of asbestos solution and 20 empty barrels, according the truck's manifest filed with Maryland's DOE.

Ecoflo has a satisfactory safety rating, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records. It had passed 21 safety inspections in the past two years, and the company's drivers had not been involved in any accidents in that time period, the records show.

Authorities reopened the southbound lanes of I-83 after just a two-hour shutdown Thursday afternoon, but the cleanup kept the northbound lanes closed until 1:30 a.m., state highway officials reported.

While a nightmare for motorists, the highway blockage apparently proved a minor bonanza for the Exxon service station at the Parkton exit, where northbound traffic was forced to turn off I-83.

Daniel Burnap, 17, of Parkton, a station cashier, said that he arrived at work yesterday to find the store's food and drink shelves practically stripped.

"I got here early, and the store itself was just drained," he said. "It's great for the store, but now I have to work ... to get everything back in shape." Normally, the service station sells about a half a case of Coca-Cola each day -- but he said that on Thursday, it sold six times that.

"I just hope it doesn't happen again," Burnap said. "It's not exactly great for the community. Being someone who lives here, you don't want to see the situation repeat itself."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

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