SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001



by Ian Lordon

"I was going for a free ride."
Early in the afternoon of November 6 Jim Dziedzic found himself careening downhill at ninety kilometres an hour in the wrong lane banging against a concrete abutment with no steering, the hood of his Esso truck blocking his view, and over 50,000 litres of fuel following right behind him.

Heading north on Highway 16 towards Port Clements, Dziedzic was hauling a truck and trailer loaded with gasoline and diesel from Esso's bulk plant at Skidegate Landing bound for Masset when his left front tire blew just as he started down the long, steep hill which bottoms out over the Kumdis River.

"The tire exploded with such force it blew the hood open," he said. "I couldn't really see where I was going but I didn't have much steering anyway- the tie rod on the axle got all bent up on the cement and I lost my steering."

The truck lurched left into the opposite lane, slamming into the concrete abutment lining the highway on the shoulder of the road. Gravity took over from there, propelling truck and trailer towards the bottom of the hill while hunks of tire, metal, and other debris littered the asphalt behind it.

"The downhill had a lot of momentum with all that weight, that heavy train. I lost control and started rubbing around on the concrete- that's all that kept me on the road. I was just scraping all along it. By the time I got to the bottom the trailer had broken away and taken off. Then the truck rolled over just before it came to a stop. By then it didn't have much forward motion so it didn't rupture."

April 22, 2001 - Workers deployed containment booms across the creek which trapped the fuel so it could be pumped into holding tanks and shipped away for treatment. Booms were also wrapped along the spill site to prevent more fuel from seeping into the river.

Queen Charlotte resident Rick Johnson was the only witness to the crash. He caught up with Dziedzic's truck just five minutes before the blowout, and although tempted, elected not to pass the tanker only moments before the accident. As a result he enjoyed a bird's eye view of the entire incident when the truck lost control.

"I've never watched (an accident) unfold before my very eyes," Johnson said. "I saw this big puff of smoke and heard the bang. The truck immediately started to pull to the left and the trailer started to fishtail. When it slammed into the concrete it came unhitched and then the whole thing sort of exploded into a huge cloud of diesel. There were wheels flying and bouncing all over, it was quite a dramatic scene, more so than any action movie I've seen."

Fortunately, there was no other traffic on the highway when the accident occurred. Johnson parked his car and as he ran, unsure of what he'd find when he arrived at the spot where Dziedzic's truck eventually came to rest, the road remained deserted.

"There was junk all over the road," he said. "The air was thick with diesel fumes and that's what I was really concerned about when I was running down the hill."

Meanwhile Dziedzic, unhurt, was coming to his senses in the cab of the truck. Unable to see the extent of the damage, and alarmed at the prospect of his cargo igniting behind him, his only thought was of escape.

"All I knew was the truck was full of gas and get out of here," he said. "I shut off the key and all the lights and I went out the passenger door because it was laying on the driver's side. I went straight up there thinking 'legs don't fail me now, let's get out of here!'"

"I got away from the crash and as I was going I was picking up pieces of metal all over the highway in case a car came around and would have gotten a flat tire from the little shards I left behind," Dziedzic recalled.

In retrospect Johnson was amused by Dziedzic conscientiousness, but at the time he was simply relieved to see the driver emerge from the wreck.

"Jim climbed out of this thing and I just gave him a big hug," he said. "Then the silly bugger started picking debris up off the road."
Both men fled to the safety of Johnson's car where he radioed for help.

Good luck had characterized the accident this far. Dziedzic was lucky to be alive- lucky he was not seriously injured, and lucky the truck's explosive cargo didn't ignite. It was also lucky no one else was involved in the crash. In the hours following the accident good luck continued to smile over the scene, and like a hot roller at the craps table, fate kept turning up sevens whenever anyone needed a break.

The runaway trailer ruptured completely before it settled 100 feet from the Kumdis River. Along the way, close to 30,000 litres of diesel fuel was unleashed upon the highway, the shoulder, and into the soil near the riverbank. The gasoline tank attached to the truck had somehow remained in tact, preventing its far more flammable cargo from escaping except for minor losses through the tank's vents and hatches. Had the gas been spilled, cleanup would have been complicated if not impossible because of the threat its ignition would pose to workers.

With Dziedzic safe from harm, attention focussed on containing the flow of diesel into the Kumdis River. Fuel was already seeping into the channel and time was running short to prevent serious damage to the stream and the fragile Kumdis slough at the mouth of the river- rare and important habitat for seabirds, vegetation, and other marine life. Big machines were required on the scene immediately.

Providence replied when Randy O'Brien happened to roll up in his truck only ten minutes after the accident. A little later he had a backhoe on site and operator Ted Lindsay set to work digging a trench between the spill and the river to intercept the flow of diesel. Meanwhile, Imperial Oil's emergency response team was kicking into gear and organizing the delivery of containment booms, cleanup equipment, and personnel to the site.

"We got a fair amount of information quickly," response team member Keith Tanner said. "My understanding was that it was obvious right away that whatever was on the trailer was pretty much released. That would have determined right there the magnitude of the spill. Knowing that, you mobilize big quickly."

Tanner said because the spill had a marine component, Esso also alerted Burrard Clean, a Vancouver company specializing in marine cleanup and containment contracted by the Canadian Coast Guard to respond to any hazardous spill on the BC Coast.

"Burrard Clean has equipment and resources strategically located up and down the coast," he said. "They have at least one 45-foot trailer filled with equipment that is kept on the Queen Charlotte Islands on standby."

And that trailer happened to be in the care of Dave Unsworth, just up the highway in Port Clements.

"We mobilized Burrard Clean right away for their expertise and resources so we were able to get a boom on the creek as soon as possible," Tanner said.

And while locals herded cleanup materials and equipment to the site, Imperial Oil's response team was busy getting its people to the islands.

"We got people there right away," Tanner said. "In the early stages we chartered at least two flights with Imperial Oil people and equipment. We had helicopter surveillance in the initial stages just to get a handle on what was going on. At its peak we had twelve or more Imperial Oil people on site."

Tanner was grateful for the help of locals, whose quick response he said mitigated the damage to the Kumdis River and significantly reduced the amount of remedial and restoration work required once the spill was contained.

"We got great support locally," he said. "Most of our work was coordinated through O'Brien's Road and Bridge and they reached out to the resources that were required. There were a lot of people working very hard and it was much appreciated."

Alex Grant, an environmental safety officer from Smithers, was on site supervising the cleanup and containment of the spill on behalf of the BC Ministry of Environment Lands and Parks. Grant, who deals with hundreds of spills across northern BC every year, said the Kumdis spill was seen as large and potentially serious relative to the reports his office typically handles.

"It was a larger spill, a significant spill," he said, but added good fortune, hard work, and careful planning all conspired to limit the damage. "I think it worked out pretty well considering what the potential was. A lot of it was good luck. Like the fact there was a loader close by that could dig some recovery pits and keep the diesel from getting into the creek. Some of it was good planning because there was a spill kit that Burrard Clean was able to deploy in a fairly timely manner. If it had happened on Moresby or some other remote location it would have been much more difficult to get the contaminated soil out of there before it rained."

Grant also said the nature of the Kumdis River itself, the ease of access to the site and downstream areas, the weather and timing of the spill also contributed to the efficient and effective application of cleanup resources.

"It was good luck the Kumdis at that time of year was relatively slow flowing with lots of deadfalls that actually confined the spill to the location," he said. "You couldn't have picked a better creek to try to contain fuel on, even though the risk was very high because Kumdis Slough is such a rich productive area. We couldn't really afford to let it get out of the river into the slough. Having perfect access with an upstream and downstream bridge was very convenient. And having very cooperative weather conditions with no rain which could have flushed the fuel away before we could get it under control also helped."

Workers deployed containment booms across the creek which trapped the fuel so it could be pumped into holding tanks and shipped away for treatment. Booms were also wrapped along the spill site to prevent more fuel from seeping into the river. Contaminated soil was excavated and removed to the Port Clements transfer station where it was secured in a temporary weatherproof cell until it can be stored permanently. Grant also said the job was easier and safer because workers were dealing with diesel as opposed to more challenging or dangerous hydrocarbons.

"If it was something heavy like crude it doesn't suck up as easily, plus crude can mix with water and sink and then it's harder to recover and it stays in the environment," he said. "If it had been gasoline the risk would have been much higher of a fire. With diesel you could work right close to it and the hazards were relatively low. It would have been worse if it was a real hot day because then diesel does become a fire risk."

Grant said the majority of the work was concluded within a week. Almost forty people were on the site at the height of the cleanup, not including Imperial Oil support staff coordinating efforts off-island, but with the exception of some excavation left to do in the riparian area, the only mess left to tidy up is of a more bureaucratic nature.

"On the ground it seems to be pretty much concluded," he said. "There's still more work to do on it, especially on the paperwork side of things. Because they're still working in the creek we still haven't got a final report back from them, so we haven't issued a final clearance on the site yet. There will be ongoing monitoring just to confirm everything is what we expected."

In his time on site and afterwards, Grant said he never saw or received any reports of dead fish or wildlife, but he did acknowledge the possibility. "I'm not aware of any fatalities of any kind," he said. "However the volumes were large, and large enough to cause an impact on wildlife."

Because the spill was accidental, neither the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or Ministry of Environment is expected to lay charges in the wake of the incident. Tanner, from Imperial Oil, said the final cost of the cleanup is not yet known and was unwilling to offer any estimates, however company insurance will help defray expenses.
Tanner said ICBC did conduct an investigation into the crash, but has not passed along findings to the company yet. Imperial Oil is not planning any changes to its operation as a result of the spill.

"ICBC has done an investigation on the truck and the tire but I haven't seen any results from that so I don't know that there's any root cause analysis brought forward, anything that can be acted on, or anything done differently," he said. "There's nothing that really jumps out in this situation that I'm aware of."

Esso Fast Fuels' Matt Ravlic, the agent for Imperial Oil on Haida Gwaii, said he was relieved the spill was managed as well as it was. He knows the risks associated with moving fuel better than anyone, but other than ensuring his fleet of trucks are regularly maintained and his drivers are competent, can't see how an accident like the one at Kumdis could have been prevented.

"We're going over rivers, creeks every day. The truck crosses at least three, four places that are fish streams or creeks. It's a big-time concern but all we can do is stay on top of all the units, make sure they're inspected when they're supposed to be and that everything is tickity boo," he said. "It's just the nature of the beast, you can't live without this stuff and you have to be very careful how you move it around. We were surprised it didn't go all the way down into the ocean, it could have been a huge disaster."

As for Dziedzic, the only injury he suffered from the crash was some whiplash he felt days later. A very experienced driver, he's found himself in tricky situations before, but none as perilous as the one he encountered last November. His memory of those wild moments after the blowout still troubles him.

"Twenty years of driving truck, I've had them try and jackknife on black ice but I always managed to pull out of it. Every other time I've had a flat tire it's usually been at the back of the truck. I'm still kind of getting over post-traumatic stress from the whole thing."
Dziedzic has tried to return to work, but the father of two found driving the fuel train has lost its appeal and his narrow escape has forced him to reevaluate his job.

"The family becomes much more precious to you when you come home from work after a day like that. You want a desk job. I did go back for awhile, but I was getting chest pains from anxiety. I'm not interested in driving too much anymore, I'm not as happy go lucky going down the highway with that big monster."


SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001

graphics and photos - InHouse/SRs