It seemed like something from a television crime drama, a quirky side plot to distract the overly serious hero from the evening's primary concern: A truck driver picks up a trailer full of 35,000 pounds of raw chicken, transports it a few hours down the highway, then decides to hold it for ransom. When the trucking company—Dixie River Freight of Nampa, Idaho, in this case—doesn't cave to the rogue trucker's demands, the driver simply abandons the frozen birds and absconds with the drivable part of the rig.
This was no episode of "Justified," though. The drama—what to do about a trailer full of melting cargo slowly oozing rotten chicken juice on the asphalt of the Flying J truck stop off I-90 at the Wye—played out sensationally around Missoula last September. But like the latest Internet meme, after a couple days of handwringing and media brouhaha, it seemed like the story, and the trailer full of chicken, just disappeared.
Turns out, cleaning up the mess marked just another day at the office—or out of it, as generally happens—for the crew at West Central Environmental Consultants in Missoula.
"That one was weird because it was such a big deal, media-wise, but it's really just garbage," says Jim Rolle, director and regional manager for WCEC's Environmental Services Division. "I mean, it's rotten chicken. There's no environmental danger there."
In other words, the high-profile job wasn't among the most challenging or critical cleanups for a business that specializes in taking care of other people's messes. According to Rolle, 90 percent of WCEC's work entails the investigation and remediation of "petroleum release sites," a technical term for toxic leaks that occur either during transport or at a fixed facility. He and his colleagues offer everything from client consultation on how to secure these sites to suiting up and handling the dirty work themselves.
"One day it's rotten chickens, the next day you're getting deposed on litigation," Rolle says. "Most of our work is pretty unpredictable. The upside is it's pretty engaging to not always know what you're going to do—the element of the unknown. But it's not for everybody."
Rolle's cellphone rang early on Saturday morning. A tanker truck pulling two pup trailers crashed on Highway 12 in Idaho near the Lochsa River, east of the Wilderness Gateway Campground. The tanker and one pup trailer were upright, but the second pup was on its side and breached, spilling gas into the dry ditch. It was one of WCEC's clients and Rolle needed a crew out there right away.
"Administratively," Rolle says, "we want to have a contract before we roll. But for a lot of our clients we have standing spill contracts, and that goes for probably the top half-dozen national fuel distributors [doing business] in Montana."
In addition to WCEC, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, the Idaho Department of Transportation, the Idaho Highway Patrol, a regional hazmat crew out of Lewiston and the Nez Perce tribe all responded to the accident. Having to travel all the way from Missoula, Rolle and his colleague, Nate Olson, were the last to arrive on the scene.
"There was a big crack in the tank with gas leaking out," Olson says, "and no one doing any kind of containment. In all honesty I don't know if they have any options. Responders like firefighters are more about immediate public threats—which there really weren't any—not long-term remediation costs."
Rolle and Olson quickly built a makeshift basin out of plastic to collect the gasoline, then pumped it into 55-gallon barrels they'd brought with them until the trucking company could get another tank to the site. Tanker trucks and trailers are compartmentalized for better safety, as well as to allow a single truck to transport multiple types of fuel. This particular trailer had two compartments, one carrying diesel and one carrying gasoline. Only the gasoline container was breached, though the diesel side also needed to be drilled open and recovered.
"Within 20 minutes we were offloading fuel so it wasn't contaminating the ground," Rolle says.
A Nov. 14 report from KLEW-TV in Lewiston quoted Region II HazMat Response Team member Mike Schmidt as saying "Crews spent about six hours cleaning up the spill. They were able to save all 2,000 gallons of diesel and about half of the 17,000 gallons of gasoline." A Missoulian story the same day reported "no evidence of any fuel reaching the water by the time Schmidt and the seven others left the scene to return to Lewiston at about 8 p.m. Saturday."
But those reports only covered part of the story. While the immediate threat—fuel pouring out of the tanker into the ditch—had been addressed, the trucking company was still responsible for the roughly 850 gallons of gasoline that wasn't recovered and threatened to leak into the Lochsa.
Rolle wanted to dig it out immediately. His logic was that if they didn't act quickly, the product would mix with the groundwater and possibly find its way into the river. He suggested to his colleagues at the site that they should tear out the westbound lane of Highway 12 to avoid a remediation project that could extend for years.
Doug Stahman, WCEC's general manager and Rolle's boss, started receiving phone calls by 6 the next morning. Rolle recalls hearing how those conversations went: Hey, you guys have some crazy guy in Montana who wants to tear out Highway 12. He needs to not do that.
Rolle laughs about it now.
"Then the Coast Guard is calling him (changes to the Clean Water Act have made the Coast Guard ultimately responsible for any gas and oil spills affecting surface water) and Doug is calling me saying, 'What the hell are you doing over there?'"
WCEC did not dig up Highway 12. Instead, the company was required to get a permit to dig out just the ditch line, a process that took two weeks. When they did break ground, Rolle found the gasoline had indeed migrated beyond the initial spill site. Four years later, it's still an open project, as WCEC continues to monitor and sample the river for signs of the spill. Rolle expects the project to close this year.
"It's always a chess match," he says. "You show up and say what you most want to do. And then six people say no."