Energy & Environment

The Big Spill

When trucks lose their loads, cleaning up gets creative.
by | September 2007

With all of the non-hazardous cargo that has dropped, leaked, oozed, melted or in some manner gotten out of trucks onto America's roadways in recent years, someone could have constructed a house, paved the road leading up to it, furnished every room and prepared a fine Italian meal served by candlelight. Of course, that scenario could have happened only if all the goods had fallen at the same time, in the same location, and nobody minded a little road grit with dinner.

In reality, unless money is littering the pavement--as it was in Wisconsin in August when 32,000 quarters rolled out of an armored car with an unsecured door--bystanders generally don't pitch in to help clean up spills. That job is left to highway departments, which don't always have first-hand experience cleansing the roads of the wide variety of materials they encounter. Among them: logs, asphalt, furniture, beer, spaghetti sauce, olive oil, eggs, chickens, mushroom soup, pickled peppers, candy and ice cream.

Not surprisingly, the method for cleaning up chicken fat is different from the way you clean up hydraulic fluid, which is different from the way you clean up red dye. Highway departments may not start out as experts at removing products that escape in bulk, but they have to learn quickly when the interstate has been slimed, traffic is backing up and people are steaming mad. Options include hosing, sweeping, liming, sanding, scooping or a combination of methods.

This summer, it took crews in Washington State five tries to come up with a way to get rid of leaked paraffin wax that coated 200 feet of roadway, 8 feet across, with a quarter-inch of wax. They tried sand, brooms, a dirt coating and a degreasing cleanser before discovering that hot water melted the wax so it could be vacuumed up.

In Illinois, a trucker's load shifted as he was exiting a freeway, and the truck tipped over, distributing its contents willy-nilly--not just a mass of grease but also pigs' hooves and ears. "It was stuff picked up from restaurants to be taken to a rendering plant," says Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Highway workers brought truckloads of sand to try to sop up the grease, then a front-end loader to dig up the sand. But a slick residue remained on the highway. They brought in the hazardous materials team (not that pigs are hazardous to much more than your cholesterol). The hazmat team provided the strong cleaning agents needed to remove the grease.

"Every day on highways around Chicago, various trucks are tipping over and spilling loads," says Claffey. "We get all kinds of weird stuff," he says, recalling an orange juice concentrate incident. Often, the spills can be very dangerous, and certainly they create traffic problems.

Some have been easier to pick up than others. A load of sand? Scoop it up with a front loader. Lettuce? One of the easier ones. Live chickens? That depends on how good the cleanup crews are at round-ups.

And spills are not limited to major highways. They occur in suburban and rural areas, too. In Maine, just south of the Canadian border, the driver of a logging truck apparently didn't see the red flashing light warning that a train was coming. Unable to stop once he saw the train coming, he veered into a ditch. The truck rolled over, and about 100 logs broke free from their straps. "There were logs everywhere," says Deputy Thomas Chambers, of the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

There were no loaders nearby to help out, however. After heavy rains the previous week, a lot of trucks that might have been available were bogged down in mud in the woods. It took nearly five hours from when the incident was first reported to get the mess off a road that is a scenic route through the state from Canada.

But it couldn't possibly have been as bad as the day last month when a truck carrying 24 tons of chicken manure rolled over onto someone's front lawn in Norridgewock, Maine. After the spill, "manure was hanging from the mailbox and the trees, plastered on two cars in the yard and splashed on a nearby garage and snowmobile," according to a local news report. And apparently a fence was destroyed by "flying chicken excrement." But in this case, government workers had to be mighty relieved. The private trucking firm did the entire cleanup.

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