Fuel Spill Prompts Truck Traffic Scrutiny

By Beacon Staff

Residents of the five homes along Montana Highway 35 forced to evacuate after an April 2 fuel spill recently received a bit of good news: It could be a matter of months – not years as was initially thought – before these families can return home.

“Hopefully, within a few weeks we can start getting these folks back in,” said Carey Cooley, spokeswoman for Lake County’s office of emergency management.

But the repercussions from the accident, when an overturned tanker dumped 6,380 gallons of gasoline into the ground near Finley Point on a stretch of road close to Flathead Lake, are likely to be far-reaching. Jim Lynch, director of the state Department of Transportation, announced last week he would seek public comment on possible restrictions to truck traffic on Montana 35.

The examination of truck traffic on the highway by MDT, along with another tractor-trailer overturning nearby April 28, has renewed complaints by some residents and business owners along the east shore of Flathead Lake that the winding, two-lane road cannot support the amount of truck traffic it receives between Polson and Bigfork. Meanwhile, trucking industry representatives make clear that they will oppose any restrictions to Montana 35 that could make a difficult time for their industry even worse.

With approximately 5,000 gallons of fuel still in the ground, technicians for Cedar Creek Engineering, the firm hired to handle the cleanup, have a long way to go before the water and soil is cleaned up. Last week engineers installed “vapor extraction systems” in the five homes to suck out any fumes that might be emanating from the basement floors. Cedar Creek engineers have also built 10 test wells to monitor water quality and figure out the location and depth of remaining chemicals. Recent data from the wells seems to indicate that the area isn’t getting much worse, as of about three weeks after the spill.

“It’s stabilized,” Cooley said. “Now it’s just sort of doing basics every day, and not so much an emergency situation.”

A tractor-trailer travels north on State Highway 35 toward Wood’s Bay along Flathead Lake.

Carolina Casualty, the insurance carrier for Keller Transport of Billings, whose tanker flipped, plans to hire a second engineering firm to dig a large trench and build a concrete barrier to keep any fuel from reaching the lake, and install several new water filtration systems for the homes. Much of this work is a race against the clock because the lake will begin to rise in May.

The fuel spill and ongoing cleanup prompted Lynch to take a closer look at just what his department could do to make any changes to truck traffic on that road, if there was strong community support for it. Based on public comments, Lynch can make a recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration, which ultimately has jurisdiction over the stretch of highway.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to move the public comment process forward, and that includes the (trucking) industry as well,” Lynch said. “Some members in the community have, what I think, are important questions and we need an answer.”

But Lynch noted a public comment period also provides a chance to explain the implications of truck restrictions on Montana 35. For example, restricting trucks by weight could prohibit logging trucks for that area, hinder the delivery of construction materials for homebuilding, or complicate food deliveries to restaurants and other businesses on the east shore. As for questions of whether the road is too meandering for sustained truck traffic, Lynch said he as yet to receive the accident report, so it’s currently unclear whether the road’s curves or lack of shoulder caused the April 2 turnover.

Susan Western is a co-owner of the Woods Bay Market, the only gas station on the east shore, and of the Woods Bay Resort. She has been dealing with complaints about tractor-trailers speeding along the east shore for years, and had a petition going to get a flashing traffic signal near Woods Bay to slow down speeding trucks. Most food and fuel deliveries her businesses receive are from trucks driving down to Woods Bay from Bigfork, not up from Polson, so she doesn’t think truck restrictions would affect her much, and could improve safety.

“I think it would be something that could be very good for the east side of the lake,” she said. “If they would just enforce the speed limit, it would help a lot.”

But Barry “Spook” Stang, executive director of the Montana Motor Carriers Association, which represents the state’s trucking companies, firmly opposes any restrictions to trucks on federally funded highways. Truckers pay more than half of the tax money to build and maintain federal highways through fuel and freight taxes, Stang said, so limiting which routes truckers use is unfair – particularly when it forces them to travel longer distances.

While U.S. Highway 93, along the west shore of Flathead Lake, may be a wider, straighter road, Stang said its hills and longer distance from Polson to Kalispell would force truckers to use more fuel at a time when that is simply untenable.

“Right now, we’re battling the highest fuel prices the trucking industry has ever seen,” he said. “Most of the guys that use that route use it because it’s the most efficient route to Kalispell and Columbia Falls.”

In addition to east side restrictions costing truckers precious hours and thousands of dollars in gas, diverting truck traffic to the west side of the lake is guaranteed to only prompt outcries from those communities, Stang added. The high fuel prices are already forcing truckers to implement conservation measures that include driving at lower speeds.

While he regrets the fuel spill and will participate in MDT’s public comment over restrictions on Montana 35, Stang said such incidents underline a common complaint among truckers: that the public is too quick to complain about the trucking industry, without acknowledging the vital role it plays in a functioning economy.

“The simple fact is, we’re a necessity of life in Montana,” Stang said. “Without trucks, we don’t have anything, and we all share in that burden.”

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