Cleanup underway after tanker truck spills thousands of gallons of fuel into Ocoee River [photos]

Cleanup underway after tanker truck spills thousands of gallons of fuel into Ocoee River [photos]

May 16th, 2018 by Ben Benton and Mark Pace in Breaking News

Divers are in the Ocoee River at the site of a diesel and gasoline spill after an 8,000-gallon tanker truck overturned into the water Tuesday evening on U.S. Highway 64.

Photo by Polk County Sheriff's Office

This story was updated May 16, 2018, at 11:13 p.m. with more information.

Gallery: Ocoee River spill cleanup underway

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OCOEE, Tenn. — Up to 5,200 gallons of fuel spilled into the Ocoee River on Tuesday and Wednesday after a tanker truck drove off the road, down an embankment and into the river. The driver of the truck lost control while traveling on the winding Highway 64 in Polk County, flipping the semitractor-trailer onto its right side and spilling the majority of the 8,000 gallons of fuel it was carrying.

The accident occurred early Tuesday evening when the driver of the truck, Glenn Morris of Hixson, Tennessee, lost control while driving near mile marker 12.5. His truck, owned by Pilot Mountain, North Carolina-based Petroleum Transport Co. Inc., plummeted 40 feet down an embankment and rolled into the river, causing Highway 64 to close.

Morris sustained minor injuries, according to officials, and was taken to a hospital by family members.

The next priority became containing the fuel.

Booms — devices that help contain hazardous materials spills — were deployed near the tanker truck and downstream in an effort to keep spilled fuel from spreading, Polk County Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Lofty said. Hamilton County crews responded Tuesday to the scene to help with that effort, he said. Crews made an attempt to right the tanker Tuesday night but couldn't do it while it was full.

Early Wednesday, two divers looked for the leaks that were allowing diesel fuel and gasoline to slowly seep out of the tanker into the river. Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency estimate that up to 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel and up to 200 gallons of gasoline were released from the tanker.

Officials set up booms as far as 2 miles downstream to contain the spilled fuel. An environmental cleanup group and state and federal officials worked Wednesday to remove it from the water.

"TDEC is on site coordinating with [the Environmental Protection Agency] and local officials on sampling requests, water quality monitoring as needed," said Kim Schofinski, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The United States Department of the Interior and a threatened and endangered species consultant have been asked to inspect the scene, according to a release from EPA spokesman Jason McDonald. No wildlife deaths have been reported, but officials will conduct a more thorough assessment now that the truck has been removed and booms have been deployed. The Ocoee River contains numerous fish species including trout, crappie, catfish, sunfish and several species of bass, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Lofty said the smell of gasoline was "pungent" immediately after the spill, and local residents who came to the scene Tuesday evening to lend a hand were asked to leave the area until the fumes dissipated. Polk County's fire and rescue boat also was deployed to the scene.

Fuel that did not spill was off-loaded from the truck early Wednesday. The truck was successfully removed later in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, cleanup work continues.

Tennessee environmental and emergency management officials were on the scene during the day Wednesday, Lofty said. Emergency responders from neighboring Bradley and McMinn counties also helped, he said.

With the highway closed most of Wednesday, Tennessee Department of Transportation crews provided help with traffic, said spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn. Officials manned diversion points to direct traffic to alternate routes to get around the spill site via State Route 68, which crosses the mountains from Madisonville to Ducktown.

The spill is not expected to have an impact on the recreational paddling schedule. The river does not flow on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at Chattanooga OutdoorsTFP.