Huge I-94 crash site poses environmental challenge
One by one, the cars, pickups and semis came rolling out of the fog about 50 yards from a massive pileup along Interstate 94 in Galesburg, east of Kalamazoo.
In the shaky cellphone video on YouTube, each of the vehicles is moving too fast to stop in time. On that early January day, they were part of what turned out to be nearly 200 vehicles in one of Michigan's biggest multi-vehicle accidents in recent memory.
A trucker from Ottawa, Ontario, died and about two dozen people were taken to area hospitals. More than 60 drivers were eventually cited for their parts in the accident.
The massive pileup also caused environmental contamination with hazardous materials leaking from ruptured containers and tanks, seeping into the ground and flowing into drains. More than six months after the accident, state officials are still working to identify those responsible for the contamination and compel them to pay for cleanup work.
Officials with Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality are going through the accident reports, videos and photos from the incident with the help of Michigan State Police to determine responsibility for environmental contamination.
"We have to go back through and geo-spatially locate all of the individual spills, sit down with the state police and figure out which vehicle sat at which location," said Mark DuCharme, a senior environmental analyst with the DEQ. "The night of the accident, emergency responders ... noted which vehicles were leaking ... .
"With certain releases, we know who the responsible party is, but in some cases. ..."
Among the 193 vehicles tangled on both sides of I-94 vehicles were dozens of semis hauling all manner of hazardous materials. State officials did not deem the leaked chemicals a threat to nearby residences and businesses but they still require some cleanup and follow-up testing to determine possible long-term environmental effects.
Key among crash vehicles was one tanker filled with 44,600 pounds of liquid formic acid — a chemical used for everything from preserving livestock feed to the production of leather and textiles. Limited inhalation exposure can cause throat and nose irritation while long-term exposure can lead to kidney problems.
Another truck, which came to rest nearby, bore 40,000 pounds of fireworks. Others leaked gasoline or diesel fuel.
And one truck leaked milk — which supposedly does a human body good. But milk dumped into a nearby stream can cause fish kill. In the January accident, no fish or other animals are believed to have been injured by the released chemicals.
"Most of us hadn't dealt with anything of this magnitude before," Michigan State Police Lt. Dale Hintz said about the chain-reaction accident in snow and ice that closed the highway for nearly two days.
In January, law enforcement and other officials could not do a typical on-site re-creation of the accident to assess the hazardous materials problem. The highway was turned into a parking lot, and civilians needed to be evacuated. The situation was compounded by snow, ice and freezing-cold temperatures.
The truck carrying the fireworks eventually went up in flames, ignited the payload and creating a hazard that lasted for days, even after the vehicle had been towed away. The heat of the explosions, coupled with the corrosiveness of the formic acid, did major damage to the highway itself.
Wisconsin-based Schneider Trucking was responsible for the formic acid, while Kalamazoo's Old Dominion Freight Line was hauling the fireworks. Both companies have already paid for cleanup work at the site.
State police trooper James Gochanout described the tanker scene in his report.
"This tanker was on its side and was leaking its contents," he wrote. "It was also in the fire scene ... . All persons in the downwind area were moved to an area of safety. The fire scene was creating a large volume of smoke, and the burning tanker was adding toxic fumes to the smoke."
While officials do not know the exact amount paid so far by Schneider for the work, one DEQ investigator said the same kind of work could have cost the state about $100,000.
An estimated 800 gallons of the material was released during the accident. Some reached nearby storm water equalization drains and was carried to a dump-out point at the Army's Fort Custer Training Center. That connection is essentially a closed-system, keeping the contamination from reaching outside the crash site and the Custer location.
But further testing will be needed to determine whether formic acid reached the groundwater. Some formic acid contamination is still present in one area that is too close to the roadway to be addressed. Continued monitoring of the area will be necessary to ensure it does not pose a health threat.
"We have to be careful that we don't ruin the integrity of the road," DuCharme said. "So we kind of had to cut off the contractors doing the repair work and say you can't came any closer to the road..."