By Mark Wineka
Authorities think a troublesome spill of thousands of gallons of heating oil from the vacant Fieldcrest Cannon Plant No. 7 on North Boundary Street resulted from thieves who were there to steal copper wiring.
Kenneth Rhame, an on-site coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a report that at least 8,000 gallons of No. 6 heating oil was released when someone on the property unlawfully released a valve on an above-ground, 15,000-gallon storage tank.
The spill was first detected when some of the oil reached the Town Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant July 12. Matt Bernhardt, assistant city manager for utilities, said the oil was coming into the plant “at a good flow.”
“This was heavy and sustained,” he said Tuesday.
The utility contacted the Salisbury Fire Department whose Hazardous Materials Team was activated. Rowan County Emergency Management Director Frank Thomason also served as a key point person, along with Fire Chief Bob Parnell.
“Overall the teamwork was incredible,” Bernhardt said. “We couldn’t have gotten more support than we got. They were with us every step of the way.”
Utility crews and the hazardous materials team first set about the task of trying to trace the oil back to its source. After several hours of pulling manhole covers, the hunt led to the abandoned textile plant and a concrete vault which had been used as an oil-water separator.
Bernhardt said the separator was filled to the top with oil. “We plugged it to stop the flow into the sewer system and stayed there through the night to keep an eye on it because we weren’t sure the flow was still going into that creek,” he added.
Making things more difficult for the hazardous materials team was that all the lines in the plant were underground, “and we didn’t know what was on site,” Bernhardt said.
A Salisbury-Rowan Utilities employee eventually traced another leak from a manhole back into the plant, where the team found a boiler room filled with oil. Bernhardt said it was about ankle deep.
The above-ground storage tank supplied the boiler room when the plant was operational. When the facility was vacated, the storage tank apparently was left behind with a good supply of heating oil.
The oil-flooded boiler room has a drain that leads to the oil-water separator.
“The oil-water separator is designed to separate the oil and water and to discharge the water to the wastewater treatment plant (while) containing the oil in the catch basin,” the EPA’s Rhame reported.
“The oil-water separator malfunctioned (and) was not designed to function with a catastrophic release.”
The separator is adjacent to Tar Branch Creek, a tributary to Town Creek, which eventually feeds the Yadkin River.
The next day, the Salisbury Fire Department continued to monitor the site and make sure the oil would remain contained to the boiler room and oil-water separator. The city hired Shamrock Environmental to clean some areas affected at the Town Creek treatment plant.
By July 15, a Sunday, the Hazardous Materials Team noticed oil leaching from the soil around the concrete vault and into Tar Branch Creek.
With its escape to the sewer already plugged, the oil looked for a new path of least resistance, Bernhardt said. The slow-moving oil extended about 200 yards into the creek, he estimated.
The city notified the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Fire Department constructed two underflow dams and deployed an absorbent boom in the creek to contain the spill.
The Fire Department and DENR also contacted Joel Smithgall in Atlanta, who is managing the property on behalf of the owner, FCS Urban Ministries. Smithgall told authorities he needed time to get estimates from local contractors on a cleanup.
Meanwhile, John Lesley of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources authorized the hiring of Shamrock Environmental to pump out the oil from the vault and boiler room.
Rhame said Shamrock reported the recovery of more than 8,000 gallons of oil overall.
On July 16, when oil was observed still leaching from soil in the vicinity of the vault and near the creek, the state notified the EPA, which generated a report on the whole matter.
Salisbury City Fire Marshal Terry Smith said firemen are no longer at the site, but the department has been providing the EPA and state environmental officials with any help they need.
The city also has been trying to get the property owner to better secure the former textile plant, Smith said.
Bernhardt said the property owner will be held responsible for costs associated with the cleanup, including measures required at the Town Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“It hit the plant pretty good, but it didn’t kill it,” Bernhardt said. “… It took a lot of work, but the plant has recovered pretty well.”
Bernhardt said the heating oil never reached the river and did not make contact with ultra-violet disinfection bulbs, which would have been a serious problem.
He again credited “tremendous teamwork and rapid response” for keeping a bad situation from getting a lot worse.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mark Wineka