Clean up underway for asphalt in creek

Caution tape and warning signs are placed around the stairs leading down to Cooper Creek in Twin Oaks Park in Twin after the asphalt spill last week.

By Luke Brantley
Staff writer

TWIN — Federal, state and county officials have begun cleanup efforts in Cooper Creek in and around Twin after an asphalt spill last week.
In the early morning hours of Monday, June 3, a tanker truck hauling asphalt flipped onto its side on the eastbound side of I-22 just before exit 26.
According to the Marion County Emergency Management Agency, the truck was carrying around 5,000 gallons of asphalt, and leaked about 3,000-4,000 gallons.
Emergency crews from five different fire departments and numerous other local, county and state agencies worked all day to begin cleaning the spill and clearing the roadway. The truck driver was injured and hospitalized, but no fatalities were reported.
While they were successful in clearing the interstate later that day, a large amount of asphalt emulsion had already drained into Cooper Creek, which flows through Twin (including the park there) before joining Luxapallila Creek.
County and state personnel, joined by multiple fire departments, worked to set up sand bags in the creek to try to stem the flow of the contamination.
Other personnel traveled downstream to see how far the asphalt had made it.
Marion County EMA Director Eric Terrell briefed the Marion County Commission the following morning.
“Cooper Creek feeds into the Luxapallila, which supplies Fayette with water,” Terrell said. “So it’s a serious incident. Approximately 4,000 gallons of tar went into the creek. The EPA and ADEM are here. EPA will be coordinating the cleanup.
“That project is going to be somewhere between a half a million to a million dollars or more. They won’t know until they actually get involved with it today and see what we’re up against.”
Terrell said the county’s mobile command center had been set up at the Twin Fire Department, where various agencies could coordinate cleanup efforts for the coming weeks.
Terrell said he also spoke to landowners who have been affected by the spill.
“We don’t know how far down the contamination has went yet,” Terrell said. “We’ll try to find the head of it, to find the front end of the contamination and track it as it goes down. That’s what we did yesterday, when Larry (Akers) was there, and he had his crew helping us build some catch dams.
“It was a huge response yesterday. Everybody did fantastic, but it’s going to be a long road to recovery on that creek, and it’s going to effect a lot of citizens.”
Terrell informed the commission how far the spill had traveled as of that Monday.
“Yesterday, it had made it to just past (Highway) 44, right there in Twin,” Terrell said. “I looked this morning down at County Highway 52, and it didn’t look like it made it there, and that’s about two miles.
“This is going to get a lot of attention, and it should. It’s a pretty big event.”
The Journal Record was able to accompany Terrell and other county and state officials into an area of Cooper Creek a little over a half a mile downstream of the initial spill on Tuesday as they assessed the damage to the creek.
A black line of asphalt could be observed running along the banks of the creek, and several dead fish could be seen floating in the murky water.
In other locations, a white substance could be seen forming a sort of film on the surface, which was likely the polymer emulsifier component of the asphalt emulsion.
EPA On-Scene Coordinator Jose Negron said in a briefing on Tuesday afternoon that the fish likely died from asphyxiation due to the heavy concentration of asphalt depleting the oxygen in the water.
Negron explained in Wednesday’s briefing that the asphalt shouldn’t be toxic, but it would still need to be cleaned as much as possible while also limiting damage done to the creek.
Water samples were collected and sent to labs to determine the exact makeup of what was in the water to determine how to tackle the cleanup.
On Thursday, Josh Lee with Vulcan Asphalt met with officials in the morning to explain the chemical makeup of the asphalt that his company had produced, which was being hauled in the truck after being purchased by a customer.
Lee said the emulsion mixture was not toxic, and any damage it has done should be mostly cosmetic.
“It’s an asphalt emulsion,” Lee said. “It’s used for roadway pavement, like tar and gravel. That’s what it’s primarily used for—pothole patching.
“Asphalt emulsions are also used in roofing and piping. There are water lines that are coated in asphalt to keep them impermeable. But the primary stuff that we make and sell is used for roadway construction.”
According to the Asphalt Emulsion Manufacturer’s Association’s website, “Asphalt emulsion is a combination of three basic ingredients, asphalt, water and small amount of an emulsifying agent.”
The water-based nature of the emulsion made county, state and federal officials confident the damage is mostly cosmetic, and the asphalt would continue to break down and dissipate (and eventually evaporate) naturally as it flowed downstream or remained on the banks of the creek.  
Lee said the emulsion should remain on the surface and not soak or leech into the ground, which would make it easy to wash away.
After learning that the emulsion isn’t hazardous, Negron explained the EPA’s options might be limited, because even though the asphalt might look ugly in the creek, ugly doesn’t always mean dangerous.
“Our regulations have a limit on what we can do,” Negron said. “It’s understood that is more about the optics than real hazard.
“We can address the optics to an extent, but legally, to not be inconsistent with our regulations, we have limits on what we can do.
“That being said, we’re going to give it a shot. There are a couple of things that we’re going to try today, and if those work, we’ll implement those to the best of our abilities.
“But we’re not going to be able to grab everything that’s in the creek. I understand the citizens’ concerns, and if they’re looking for a remedy, they can take the responsible party to court.
“Legally, for the environmental part, our hands are not tied, but they’re under some constraints.”
Terrell spoke with the Journal Record on Friday afternoon to give an update on cleanup efforts.
“As of this afternoon, we’ve taken water samples at seven or eight locations,” Terrell said. “They’ve taken those to a lab in Atlanta, Ga. We’ll get those results in anywhere from 24 to 72 hours.
“Sometime between Monday and Wednesday (today) we should get the results back on those.
“They performed a test today on doing a high flow, low pressure wash of that creek bed, and I’m pretty optimistic after…

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