The continued closure of state Highway 22 could complicate many Oregonians’ holiday travel plans as state and federal authorities continue clean-up and repair on a damaged section of the road.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is working with the state Department of Environment Equality to assess how badly the soil is contaminated after a truck carrying 11,600 gallons of fuel overturned 8 miles east of Idanha on Friday night, causing a massive fire and damage to the road. The driver, Ronald Edward Scurlock, 58, died at the scene, according to Oregon State Police.
The unknown amount of fuel that seeped into the soil and eventually the North Santiam River has state and federal authorities testing the water near drinking water intakes, but the situation doesn’t seem dire enough to keep the road closed nearly a week before Christmas, said retired ODOT region manager Dale Allen, 80, of Bend. Tuesday, after hearing the highway was still closed, Allen said his experience with fuel leaks in his 35-year career gives him reason to doubt the severity of the situation.
“They’re treating this like some big hazmat situation, but we’ve had school buses go into the McKenzie River,” he said. “Every accident spills fuel on the road. They are trying to make a crisis out of what normally isn’t a crisis. This is routine.”
He conferred with workers on the site and concluded that the size of the fire and the damage to the road surface indicate that nearly 90 percent of the fuel burned up, he said.
“Yes, there is some gasoline and diesel in the water, but it is relatively small and it will dissipate in the water over time,” Allen said. “With the number of people traveling to the valley or here to Bend, that road needs to be open.”
Preliminary data from samples taken on Sunday have shown no presence of gasoline and an additional round of water sampling will be conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday. The reviewed data is expected to be made available later in the week.
The highway remains closed with no official estimate for when it could be reopened.
Officials on site are working closely with the EPA to continue to remove fuel from the soil to prevent further contamination near drinking water intakes, said Peter Murphy, ODOT spokesman in Deschutes County. The innovative process is called vapor extraction and takes more time than simply repairing the 300-foot stretch of damaged pavement.
“We are working with EPA and DEQ to do the right thing,” he said. “We want to make sure we get it done properly. You can’t just hurry your way through it, and it all depends on weather.”
Tuesday night’s winter storm warning for the Northern Cascades is another piece to the puzzle of holiday travel in Central Oregon. Snow levels are projected to be 6 to 12 inches with up to 24 inches near Detroit, according to the National Weather Service. The storm warning was in effect until 6 a.m. Wednesday, with another storm blowing through later this weekend.
The weather is a key indicator for when ODOT will be able to repair the road to the point of reopening, Murphy said.
“It’s part of what tells us how to proceed, so we have to settle in and do what we can,” he said. “It’s still ongoing.”
For now, ODOT is advising drivers of smaller vehicles to take U.S. Highway 20 through Sweet Home as the detour to and from the Willamette Valley. The tight curves and lower visibility are not ideal for truck drivers, said ODOT spokesman Lou Torres.
“We are trying to get work done as soon as we can, but it’s not easy to give a date and a time,” he said.
The smaller vehicles using Highway 20 as a detour are advised to use caution as increased traffic has already caused at least one accident that closed part of the highway Monday night. Trucks should take the McKenzie Highway.
For drivers making holiday plans, follow road signs and do not rely on GPS devices for routes around the closed portion of Highway 22, Torres said.
“During the closure we have had a lot of travelers in situations where they rely on their GPS and end up on unmaintained roads and Forest Service roads where they are getting stranded and now you have the state police concerned,” he said. “There are good alternatives you can take in the meantime, and even though the weather is not real good, we are still working up there. Once the system clears out, the high (temperatures) and dry (forecast) will promote good working conditions so we can get that road repaired and reopened.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7829, firstname.lastname@example.org