By: Christopher Crosby
HEBRON— The majority of the oil spilled in last month’s accident at the Hebron Station School has been found in nearby wetlands, a DEP spokesperson said last Wednesday.
Jessamine Logan said the DEP now believes most of the 1,700 gallons oil unaccounted for in cleanup efforts has moved from beneath the foundation of the elementary school and into surrounding marshes and bogs.
The DEP revised their initial belief that the oil remained situated beneath the school after pink puddles of oil appeared in the wetlands surrounding the school’s playground, Logan said.
Oil is not believed to be in nearby Bicknell Brook, she said.
According to Logan, absorbent pads placed by Environmental Projects, Inc. have soaked up some of the oil, though the DEP will have to wait until the spring when the ground thaws to collect and remove the majority.
The DEP is currently developing a map to show the precise location of the oil in the wetlands.
About 1,900 gallons of oil leaked from a tank as it was being filled by a driver from C.N. Brown Company in South Paris on December 24.
The situation at Hebron Station School evolves daily as the DEP learns more about the oil’s movements.
Initially it was believed about 1,700 gallons of oil remained situated in the ground beneath the school’s concrete foundation after seeping from a walled-off containment bunker, situated directly below the school’s gymnasium.
On Jan. 21 SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts told school board directors, following conversations with oil and hazardous spills responder Sheryl Bernard, that the oil had traveled from beneath the school’s foundation to an unknown location.
After speaking with Peter Blanchard of the DEP on Jan. 22, however, Colpitts received updated information confirming much of the oil had migrated to the wetlands.
For weeks, Maine DEP has been working to clean up the spill as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services continually test air and water quality.
Air quality tests assessed on Jan. 24 report improving contamination levels around the school, though fumes in the gym, situated over the tank room, are still elevated in comparison and it remains closed.
On Jan. 27 installed a sub-slab ventilation system to draw air from below the school out through a perimeter drain which, according to Maine DEP engineer Don White, should help improve air quality.
On Dec. 24, maintenance workers at the elementary school ordered oil from C.N. Brown Company after the school’s boilers failed and a fuel gauge on the 2,000-gallon tank showed it was approaching empty.
Around midnight, an oil truck arrived and the driver pumped about 160 gallons into the tank before a whistle that indicates there’s empty space in it stopped sounding. The driver continued to deliver oil because the fuel gauge continued to read the tank empty.
Oil leaked out of the tank, depositing about a foot of oil in the self-contained bunker room.
According to Colpitts, the driver reportedly ensured school officials that the oil would be cleaned up. The next day a maintenance worker found the tank room dry and assumed the oil had been pumped out.
A C.N. Brown Company dispatcher called the school to see if they still needed oil. The dispatcher, according to a time-line developed by the school district, was unaware of the oil spill, and confirmed that a cleanup team had not been dispatched.
Believing the oil has seeped into the ground beneath the tank room, a Maine DEP response team was sent out on Dec. 27.
C.N. Brown President Jinger Duryea apologized for the incident, promising to work with the DEP. Colpitts said that the South company has been paying for the costs of the spill, though the district will likely have to pay some toward the final sum once it has been tallied by insurance companies.
The accident closed the Hebron Station School for more than a week following winter break, forcing 135 elementary students to relocate classes at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
Students returned to the school Jan. 13 after air and water quality tests returned within safety limits. Although the well that services the school is not contaminated, as a precaution the school installed a water filtration system as a protective measure because oil could shift toward the well over time.
According to Logan, oil moves over the land and tapers to low point, where it pools and can end up seeping into ground water.
After reviewing the site plans for the school, Logan say the DEP found a perimeter drain pipe discharging oil into the wetlands, where a thin layer of pink snow indicated oil’s presence.
Despite recovery attempts, snow and ice have buried the oil, hampering the cleanup efforts. Officials are worried disturbing the oil in the wetlands at this stage could do more harm than good, she said.
Colpitts told directors last Tuesday that the “horrific” incident was mitigated by the generosity of high school students, many of whom emptied out closets to ensure Hebron teachers had sufficient space for materials.
Colpitts praised Hebron teachers for maintaining high education standards despite the adverse conditions.
“It was not wasted time,” Colpitts said.
OHCHS school principal Ted Moccia detailed the great lengths staff from both schools went to in order to maintain educational standards throughout the ordeal.
“I think they did a super job with their kids to keep education normal there,” Moccia said.
To commemorate the event, Moccia, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett, and Athletic Director Jeff Bensen surprised Hebron students on Jan. 21 with “I survived high school 2014” t-shirts.
Director Elizabeth Swift, a Hebron representative, said there was a silver lining to the incident.
“The kids had a wonderful time. This was one of the best things that could of happen to build a community. They now know that they belong to Oxford Hills, that they aren’t just some little town stuck out in the boonies,” Swift said.