Oil Spill from Garbage Truck Turns into a $34,000+ Problem

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Alice Dreger for ELi

Workers from USIC on Abbott Woods Dr. on the morning of Feb. 5, 2021.

That accidental spill of hydraulic oil from a City of East Lansing garbage on New Year’s Eve at the Abbott Woods condo complex truck turns out to have come to about 55 gallons – and now it’s going to cost the City at least $34,000.

Tuesday night, Council approved two emergency clean-up contracts for the spill.

Following up on a tip from City employees, we reported earlier this month that a City of East Lansing sanitation truck experienced an accidental hydraulic oil leak on New Year’s Eve. The leak occurred on a private street in the Abbott Woods condo complex, which is located just west of Abbot Road and just south of the Northern Tier Trail.

The Abbott Wood condos were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the condo stormwater retention pond that has been polluted by the spill is lined with mature trees, just off Abbot Road.

City Council’s posted agenda for Tuesday night didn’t show the matter of the spill and clean-up, which meant Council had to vote to change the agenda to deal with it.

And although City staff provided Council with written information including the two consulting contracts in advance of the meeting, the material was not made available to the public before the discussion and vote.

Material released Wednesday morning gave many more details. A memo from East Lansing Infrastructure Administrator Ron Lacasse explained that “a hydraulic hose failed on the sanitation truck causing hydraulic oil to leak from the vehicle.”

Lacasse explained to Council that the fluid was related to the lifting arm of the vehicle, not the automotive operation of the vehicle, which meant the problem only became apparent when the arm malfunctioned. He said that the workers went back to DPW headquarters and then returned with material to clean it up.

According to Lacasse’s memo, “Staff responded quickly and applied oil dry [that is, a specialist product for oil spills] to the pavement surface and a street sweeper was mobilized to clean the area.”

But, “Despite these efforts, some amount of hydraulic oil entered [the condo complex’s] private storm sewer and was discharged into the storm water retention pond for the complex. It is estimated that approximately 55 gallons of hydraulic oil was lost from the vehicle, but it is not known exactly how much oil was collected in the initial cleanup effort and how much entered the storm sewer system,” according to Lacasse’s memo.

The problem of some oil remaining at the site did not rise to attention until a month after the actual spill. “One of the residents communicated to Public Works on January 28, 2021, that there was evidence of oil in their storm water retention pond,” according to Lacasse.

DPW personnel had the material analyzed and found it was indeed hydraulic oil.

At that point, DPW “reached out to Golder Associates to assist us due to our long history of working collaboratively with them on environmental monitoring and planning services related to the Burcham Landfill.”

One of the contracts approved by Council on Tuesday night calls for paying Golder Associates $10,568 for oversight of the cleanup and a report of the cleanup. That will include developing a site-specific Health and Safety Plan, monitoring the work of the cleanup contractor, collecting samples for testing, and carefully documenting and reporting on the process.

Golder Associates won’t do the actual cleanup. That will fall to M.L. Chartier Excavating, a company out of Williamston.

Chartier Excavating was chosen in a no-bid process after Golder Associates named for DPW three potential clean-up contractors and DPW staff decided to ask Council to approve the contract with Chartier Excavating, the geographically-closest company of the three recommended.

The two companies not chosen (and not named) are located in Flint and Bay City, based on what Lacasse told Council. He said that the City used to have an on-call clean-up company, but that they seem to have gone out of business. The plan is to contract anew with a toxic clean-up company that can be on call, a process Mayor Aaron Stephens suggested would happen through an open Request for Proposals.

According to Lacasse, choosing the geographically nearest company “will help keep mobilization costs down while also allowing them to be flexible with staff and equipment to respond to unknown conditions as they arise.”

Council approved the contract with Chartier Excavating in “the estimated amount of $23,982” but that contract makes clear that the price could go up depending on the conditions found and depending on how the process plays out. Council did not approve any specific contingency, and DPW Director Scott House has not yet responded to questions about what will happen if costs rise.

Lacasse’s memo does indicate that “The final cost for their service will be adjusted based on the hourly rates included in the contract.” He told Council that the oil is contained within the pond and that the top layer is frozen, and that is where the oil is expected to be found.

House has also not yet answered questions about how long the spill existed before the first, ultimately ineffective clean-up began, whether anything was done to contain the spill while workers arranged the first clean-up, and what has happened with the oil-polluted material swept-up by the street sweeper.

On Tuesday evening, in response to a question from Council member Ron Bacon, Lacasse told Council that it’s challenging to work with a frozen pond, but that DPW doesn’t want to wait to do the cleanup because of the proximity of the pond to the drainage ditch along the Northern Tier Trail.

Lacasse told Council that if there is a big thaw or rain, it could “get away from us” and that the “prudent thing is to tackle it now.” He said that if the spilled oil gets downstream, that will represent a much bigger problem.

Lacasse said City staff are communicating regularly with the condo association to keep them apprised of the situation, particularly because permission is needed to work on the private property.

Because the retention pond is part of the drainage system for the condo association’s private streets, it is not “a pristine natural environment,” said Lacasse. But, he said, the City’s goal is “to leave them an equal or better piece of property” at the end of the clean-up.

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