“Lessons Learned” from City’s Botched Handling of 55-Gallon Oil Spill on Private Property

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Map showing flow of hydraulic oil spill at Abbott Woods on New Year's Eve 2020.

DPW engineer Ron Lacasse annotated this air-view of Abbott Woods condos to show the path of the Dec. 31, 2020, hydraulic oil spill. The red circle to the left shows the spill area. From there, the oil traveled through underground sewers to the retention pond, shown at right in teal. The green circle in the upper right shows the location of an overflow to the City's sewer system, which leads ultimately to the Red Cedar River by way of East Lansing's wastewater treatment plant.

Piecing together documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and responses to our questions from East Lansing Director of Public Works Scott House, ELi can now provide a much better account of what happened – including what went wrong – in the case of a significant oil spill from a City-owned garbage truck at the Abbott Woods Condominium complex on New Year’s Eve, 2020.

The clean-up of the hydraulic oil spill – which has been estimated at 55 gallons and which leaked down a storm drain and ended up in the condo’s retention pond – is expected to cost the City at least $35,000. It also raises many questions about why it took a month for DPW to do a proper investigation of the outcome of the spill.

Responding to questions from ELi, DPW Director Scott House concludes, “There were many lessons learned here, that will result in changes in policy and training, and the goal is to learn and improve.”

For one thing, “the sanitation team has [now] been trained how to shut-off this hose should a future leak occur.” Additionally, “when we look at our training, it is facility focused, and does not address on-the-road responses. Also, we focus on minor leaks, not responding up to 55 gallons.” He plans to address those gaps.

House also told us, “We have determined that there is a need for refresher training. While the team was quick to initiate the cleanup, they did not recognize the magnitude of the spill and the fact that hydraulic oil entered the storm system.”

The spill happened on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 2020.

The roads are private in the Abbott Woods condo complex, just off Abbot Road, about a third of a mile north of Saginaw Street, but the City picks up the garbage there because the condo owners pay into that system through their property taxes.

The garbage truck that caused the spill is known as City vehicle 107. It is the type of truck that has a hydraulic arm that lifts the cans to dump the waste into the truck. A hose from that hydraulic system failed while the truck was operating on Abbott Woods Drive on Dec. 31, 2020, and that’s what caused the spill.

Maintenance records show that when the truck was returned to DPW’s facility, workers added 232 quarts – 58 gallons – of fluid to the vehicle. (The quantity spilled matters in part because of state and federal regulations regarding hazardous material spills.)

House explained to ELi, “The driver of the vehicle was a newer employee and had not received spill response training yet. Regardless, others were working that day that were trained and available, and assisted and guided the driver through the response steps.”

That said, “The responding staff did not realize that a broken hydraulic line could result in the release of potentially 55 gallons of hydraulic oil,” House adds that “this is a terrible design!” for a system containing hazardous material.

The City’s Haz-Mat Response Procedure lists “gasoline, fuel oil or any automotive type substance” as substances that are considered hazardous. The procedures instruct workers in cases like this to call the Fire Department, which has special training for spills. That didn’t happen.

The procedures also say that “if hazardous material has entered the drainage system,” a worker should “attempt to notify” Scott House. The materials give House’s cell and home phone numbers. Workers are also instructed, in these circumstances, to notify Ron Lacasse, who handles storm water drain and water safety issues. Lacasse’s cell and home phone numbers are also provided on the sheet.

What did happen is that employee Ken Johnson, Sanitation/Recycling Lead Worker, was told about the spill, and he appears to have alerted Cathy DeShambo, the City’s Environmental Services Administrator.

As we’ve previously reported, DeShambo (like Lacasse) currently has a City-owned 2020 Ford Escape vehicle personally assigned to her, to take home with her every day. (The cost was $27,000 and was part of nearly $2 million in vehicle purchases made by the City last year.) DeShambo has a vehicle that is hers to take home because, in the words of a City spokesperson, she is “expected to respond to emergencies day and night.”

DeShambo, however, did not go to the site of the spill. She also did not alert Lacasse to it. She took a verbal report from workers about the spill. Then she texted House a message that made it sound like not too big a deal:

“Just a heads up that we blew a hydraulic line near Abbot[t] Woods/Loree- clean up has already started and a street sweeper has been called in to finish. Just in case you get any calls or questions, the situation is under control.”

House answered, “Ok – thanks for [the] heads up”.

Cathy DeShambo, East Lansing’s City’s Environmental Services Administrator, texted DPW Director Scott House just after the spill to say “the situation is under control.”

The workers dealing with the spill brought in bags of specialty oil-drying products and then brought in a streetsweeper to sweep up the product. A text from one worker to another sent at 11:08 a.m. the morning of the spill said, “All set over here. Here is a pic just in case you get pushback over calling in a street sweeper. 15 bags of spill absorber!”

Initial clean-up of the oil spill at Abbott Woods condos on Dec 31, 2020, in a photo taken by a City worker at the site.

The image shows that there was a storm drain in the area of the spill. But the workers took no special action to stop the oil from going down the drain, other than the use of the spill absorber. Some of the oil went down the drain. From there it went down into the condo’s private sewer. And from there it flowed down to the condo’s retention pond near Abbot Road.

There the oil pooled and sat for another month. The oil-soaked material swept up by the streetsweeper was apparently parked on a pad at the DPW headquarters off State Road, with caution tape wrapped around it.

At least one person at the condos knew the oil had reached the retention pond.

John Michael Harju, a professional engineer with fifty years of experience in hazardous materials and water systems, happens to live at Abbott Woods. He started documenting the spill with photos, which he later shared with the City. Harju’s early pictures show the large oil stain left on the road, and his later pictures show the oil in the pond.

Nevertheless, it took a month for concerns about the spill to make their way to DPW administrator and engineer Lacasse – the person who manages this kind of problem for the City. Lacasse finally heard about the spill on Jan. 28. He wrote to DeShambo to say that a City employee “called to let me know that he was questioned today by a resident” at Abbott Woods about the problem.

Shows annotated version of the photo of the oil spill at Abbott Woods in East Lansing.
Once alerted to the issue, DPW engineer Ron Lacasse took this photo of the original spill and clean-up and annotated it. He wrote about his markings, “Green circle is catch basin and blue arrow is surface flow direction.” In other words, the spill area drained towards the storm water sewer.

“Was told that a sanitation truck blew a line in there about a month ago and we sent a sweeper in to clean it up,” Lacasse told DeShambo. “He is complaining of an oily substance in their pond now and wants to talk with someone here about it. Jason gave him my name but I do not know anything about this. Can anyone shed some light on this please?”

Lacasse copied Johnson on the email, and Johnson then sent Lacasse the photo of the original spill with the oil-drying substance on it.

The next day, Lacasse sent to DeShambo of a photo of the retention pond, writing, “Doesn’t look good,” and saying a sample would be taken.

Shows oil staining the retention pond at Abbott Woods on Jan. 29, 2021.
Text from DPW engineer Ron Lacasse showing the hydraulic oil staining the retention pond at Abbott Woods on Jan. 29, 2021.

Later that day, Jan. 29, Lacasse shared with House and DeShambo an annotated aerial view that identified affected areas. He noted that “There is a catch basin within the spill area and the storm system carries the water to the pond as shown. Green circle at the north end of the pond [in upper right of the following] is the overflow to the City storm sewer on Abbot” Road.

Map showing flow of hydraulic oil spill at Abbott Woods on New Year's Eve 2020.
DPW engineer Ron Lacasse annotated this aerial view of Abbott Woods condos to show the path of the Dec. 31, 2020, hydraulic oil spill. The red circle to the left shows the spill area. From there, the oil traveled through underground sewers to the retention bond, shown at right in teal. The green circle in the upper right shows the location of the City’s storm sewer, that flows to the Red Cedar River.

Fortunately, the weather at the time meant the pond did not overflow into the City’s system. That would have meant oil was headed for the Red Cedar River.

Now that he was aware of the issue, Lacasse recommended quick action: “I would not want [to] wait and risk a rain or melt event that causes the pond to overflow.”

Asked in late March why it had taken a month for Lacasse to be alerted, House wrote, “Staff were under the impression they had cleaned everything up and that the response was complete.”

After a test showed the fluid in the pond was hydraulic oil, the City took full responsibility for the clean-up.

About a half-hour after Lacasse told House and DeShambo action was needed on Jan. 29, Sarah Sackrider-Wiley, President of the Abbott Woods association, wrote to Scott House to reach out with “concerns” from residents there.

“Residents have observed oil in the catch basins/drains and a yellowish scum on our retention pond,” she wrote. “We are concerned that what is likely hydraulic fluid will affect the integrity of our new road and the potential impact to our retention pond.”

House responded, and Lacasse got in contact with environmental-services firm Golder Associates to ask for help with analysis and a plan for a remediation program. Golder provided the name of three contractors that could do the actual clean up, and City staff decided to go with ML Chartier in Williamston, because of proximity compared to the other companies.

Around this time, in early February, ELi heard about the spill from City staff and started asking questions. House’s responses to our questions were sent for approval by City Manager George Lahanas before coming to us.

Meanwhile, the condo association went back and forth with City staff, including the City Attorney, on legal agreements regarding the clean-up, with the condo association signing off on Feb. 15.

But after receiving the cost estimates back from ML Chartier, Lacasse had this to say: “Ouch!!!” DeShambo told Lacasse “I’m in shock” about the expense. House noted, “This will be a big hit to [the] solid waste fund,” referring to the account that pays for garbage services.

Nevertheless, the staff decided not to bid out the work. House told Lacasse, “If Golder says it is reasonable, I am good w[ith] it.”

DPW staff recommended that Council accept the estimates from Golder and ML Chartier. Council approved the plan on Feb. 16, including an estimate cost of $10,568 for Golder’s work and $23,982 for ML Chartier’s.

The clean-up includes cleaning of the road, the catch basins, the underground storm sewer lines, and the pond. Various techniques are being used to contain any residual oil.

Photo taken March 8, 2021.

Booms have been set in the Abbott Woods retention pond to try to contain any oil that remains.

We asked House on March 25 if any notification had been sent to the Michigan Dept. of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which used to be called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

House said the next day, “As far as EGLE notification, our consultant initially advised that a spill of this type of material does not meet the threshold. However, we have since sought clarification from EGLE, based on the recommendation of our consultant, to make sure we are not missing anything, and we are still waiting for a response. The consultant is still monitoring the site and taking samples, and once the site is stabilized a final report will be generated.”

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