Tanker trucks full of trouble

Another fuel truck wrecks and gushes gasoline, this time on I-405. Double-walled tanks might prevent such spills, but don't hold your breath waiting for them.

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Lake Washington: State officials at first thought a tanker spill had led some gasoline to reach the lake but later said there was no evidence that had happened.

Another fuel truck wrecks and gushes gasoline, this time on I-405. Double-walled tanks might prevent such spills, but don't hold your breath waiting for them.

Last Sunday night (Nov. 27), about 10 p.m., what might be described as an environmental disaster occurred — except that disasters like this happen so often they’ve come to seem humdrum. As the obligatory news release from the state Department of Ecology tells  it, a car struck a double tanker truck carrying a reported 6,340 gallons of gasoline on I-405 near NE 8th Street in Bellevue. The truck’s rear tank tipped over, and another car struck it. The tank tipped over, and some 2,500 gallons of gas spilled. The cleanup crew managed to vacuum up 200 gallons; the rest ran off into the surrounding soil, which crews are now excavting and removing. The Ecology Department originally announced that “some gasoline is confirmed to have reached Lake Washington," but now says it has no evidence that any did.

According to Ecology records, this wasn’t the first time the firm involved, Lee & Eastes Tank Lines, had spilled toxic fuel into local soils and waters. In 1995 DOE fined Lee & Eastes $25,000 for spilling 1,516 gallons of gasoline near Lake Samish. In 2002 it found the company negligent in a sensational accident when one of its drivers, “traveling too fast for traffic conditions” on I-90 near Tibbetts Creek, swerved to avoid a backup. His truck jackknifed, crashed, and burned, spilling 2,076 gallons of gas. DOE tried to ding the company $38,000, but it appealed and got the fine knocked down to $8,572.

Not that Lee & Eastes is an unusual offender. The list of fuel and oil spills on land and sea for which Ecology has collected fines and other damages since 1991 runs to 14 dense pages. One incident did not make the list, however: On Nov. 7, 1995, a tanker carrying 8,800 gallons of jet fuel rolled down an embankment near Port Orchard, “miraculously without spilling any of the contents,” the agency’s website reports. “But, in fact, it was no miracle," the report continues. "The rig's owner, Cascade Petroleum Transportation of Portland, had voluntarily invested in double-wall tanks for its vehicles. The extra $3,000 cost per vehicle paid off handsomely. The outer walls of the tanks were badly damaged when the truck veered off a back road near Port Orchard, but the inner tanks remained intact, preventing a spill and saving the company an estimated $100,000 in cleanup costs.” The report is entitled (nudge-nudge), “Double-Wall Tanks Head Off Environmental Damage.”

There's some question about this account. Mike Knight, safety manager for Portland’s Blue Line Transportation, which has since acquired Cascade Petroleum Transportation, says the company does not routinely use double-walled tankers, and that workers who were there at the time don’t believe the truck in the 1995 accident was one. The answer as to why Ecology reported the incident that way may lie buried deep in its archives.

But Ecology officials still seem enthusiastic about double-walled tankers — so much so that Curt Hart, chief spokesperson for the agency’s spill response program, told me they are required on Washington’s roads: “Since that regulation has been in place, it has cut down on the number of large spills.” Shortly afterward he called back to correct that: Neither Washington nor any other state requires double-walled tanker trucks. The federal Department of Transportation does not require them, and the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution pre-empts states from asserting their own rules.

A type of double wall is widely used for insulation on tankers carrying certain products — to keep asphalt warm and liquid nitrogen and natural gas cold, and to prevent water-based liquids such as milk from freezing. These lighter, thinner insulating shells aren’t intended to contain a spill, but perhaps it was one of them that kept that gasoline tanker from breaking in 1996.

Sturdy double-walled protective tankers are used in certain situations. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department is the latest agency to acquire one, for off-road firefighting. "We were concerned about punctures, driving over rough terrain," says Ventura Sheriff's Captain David Kenney. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires some kind of containment system – either cumbersome berms and linings or double tanks — for fuel driven into “sensitive areas” in National Forests and other federal lands to fill firefighting helicopters and other equipment. But it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the highways, which don’t receive the same protection, however sensitive the areas alongside them. (In Western Washington, just about any place is a vulnerable watershed.)

And double-hulled tankers are coming into near-universal use to transport oil and fuels at sea — a national and international rule instituted over the fierce resistance of the shipping industry. The 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, amended by later agreements, calls for a phase-out of single hulls by 2026. The U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the oily wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, orders that all tankers plying U.S. waters have double hulls by 2015. The result: Single hulls are largely phased out, and tanker spills have been greatly reduced. In place of the Amoco Cadiz-type catastrophes of yesteryear, we get (rarer) wellhead blowouts like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Could double tanks do the same to reduce the hundreds of spills of hazardous materials that occur each year in accidents involving tanker trucks? Randy Simonneau thinks so, though he readily admits he has a vested interest in the question. Simonneau is managing director of EnviroTankers, an Edmonton, Alberta firm that manufactures custom double-walled truck tankers for high-impact exposures. (He formerly operated a firm called Heliquest International in Seattle.)  He says EnviroTankers has a patent for large double-walled fuel tankers in Canada and one pending in the United States. It maintains a small fleet of them to rent to the oil industry, fire departments, and other such uses, then sells them on after a few years. They are used almost entirely off-road, he says. “Highway use is minimal.”

“From the perspective of the environment, they would be much better” on the highways than single-walled tankers, says Simonneau. Seattle environmental consultant David E. Ortman, a prominent longtime advocate for wetland protection and pipeline safety, concurs: “It makes no sense to double-bag groceries but only have single-wall fuel truck tanks. Why do we allow corporations to wait until disaster hits, like the 1999 Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham, before fuel safety gets some attention?”

But much as he’d love to sell a gazillion double-walled tankers for highway use, Simonneau isn’t holding his breath. Double walls increase the costs of building and operating tankers. Simonneau figures they add 30 to 40 percent to the sticker price — perhaps $55,000 in the case of a tanker that would cost $125,000 — and about 2,000 pounds to an 11,000-pound rig. And in high-volume driving, weight is money. “With all the tankers in use, it would cause an uproar” to try and replace them.

They said the same thing about marine tankers, but the ghastly spectacles at Prince William Sound, Santa Barbara, and other spill sites finally trumped such reservations. There’s a difference though: Tanker shipwrecks and pipeline bursts tend to be big and sensational. Tanker-truck accidents by contrast are death by a thousand littler leaks. And so this one on I-405 will soon be cleaned up as best it can be and forgotten, just like all the others.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.