Police search for culprits in Rogersville diesel spill

Jeff Bobo • Mar 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Police don’t know if the motive was theft, vandalism, or both, but someone emptied hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel onto the ground overnight Tuesday from a Rogersville Water Department maintenance shop fuel tank.

The Rogersville Maintenance Department had a backhoe at the water department shop at 407 Colonial Road throughout the day Wednesday scooping diesel-saturated soil into a plastic-lined dump truck.

The contaminated soil will be stored on city property pending proper disposal.

Rogersville Police Chief Doug Nelson said someone either climbed over or under the locked fence of the water department shop, ran a hose from the pump to the fence, and possibly attempted to steal fuel from a diesel pump at the rear of the lot.

Oddly enough, the nozzle was hung back in place on the pump when water department workers arrived at the shop Wednesday morning and discovered the crime.

The culprits may have gotten away with some fuel, but most of it ran onto the ground and into a ditch along Hillcrest Street.

The spill flowed into a tile on Hillcrest Street and downhill toward Colonial Road, where maintenance workers dug out a containment pond near the Hillcrest Street intersection and lined it with plastic.

Wednesday evening maintenance workers had begun flushing water through the tile into the containment pond, where the contaminated liquid was to be pumped into barrels for disposal.

Nelson said the 1,000-gallon diesel tank had been filled earlier this month, and some fuel had been used by city workers since then, but it was almost full when the culprits struck. The tank is now empty.

The lost fuel was valued at $2,000, but that’s only a fraction of what the cleanup will cost.

“I’m not an expert, but I’m going to say it will be in the tens of thousands for the cleanup and the crew that’s out there working on it,” Nelson said.

Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell responded to the scene with a representative of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Also responding to the scene were state water quality officials, representatives from various utilities, and a representative of Hepaco Inc., which specializes in cleanups of this nature. Rogersville contracted with Hepaco Wednesday as a consultant for the diesel spill cleanup.

Murrell said no drinking water sources were at risk from the spill, and no one in the surrounding area uses wells for drinking water.

Murrell said he’d be afraid to guess how much this cleanup will cost the city.

“They’re already talking about days and weeks of digging, sampling and flushing,” Murrell said. “The city of Rogersville is working diligently to solve this problem as quickly as possible. As you might imagine, 1,000 gallons of fuel can contaminate a large amount of topsoil, and it will require a lengthy cleanup.”

Nelson is asking anyone with information about the spill to contact his department at 272-7555. He said his officers have dusted the pumps and areas around the scene for fingerprints and have canvassed the surrounding neighborhood looking for anyone who noticed suspicious people or vehicles around the maintenance lot.

The fact that the nozzle was placed back on the pump after the tank was emptied indicates that the culprits may have been there a long time. It pumps as fast as a regular service station fuel pump, and it would have taken quite awhile to empty a 1,000-gallon tank, Nelson said.

“We would sure like to find out (who did this),” Nelson said. “We’ve talked to people who live in the houses out there, and we’re trying to find out if anyone was seen out there during the night — any type of vehicle or anyone on the property who we can connect to this crime.”

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