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How to clean up a diesel spill at 4,000 feet? Wait till spring.

Power has been restored to a radio transmission tower that serves Pierce County police, fire and other emergency services east of Wilkeson. The station’s power supply comes from two diesel generators fueled from 6,000 gallon tanks, at left. Fuel line failures caused the station to lose power last month.
Power has been restored to a radio transmission tower that serves Pierce County police, fire and other emergency services east of Wilkeson. The station’s power supply comes from two diesel generators fueled from 6,000 gallon tanks, at left. Fuel line failures caused the station to lose power last month. Courtesy

A failed Pierce County emergency services radio tower is again transmitting after crews cleared snowdrifts of up to 10 feet to reach the site.

The radio transmission tower, part of a network of transmitters serving Pierce County police, fire and other emergency services, is on Three Sisters Peak east of Wilkeson. The communications station is atop the 4,000-foot peak.

Sarah Foster, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman, said the transmitter quit operating Feb. 19. Inspectors, who reached the communications site on a Sno-Cat, found both diesel generators providing power to the transmitter had shut down.

Those generators failed because two fuel lines feeding them had burst, she said. Those fuel line breaks dumped an estimated 4,000 gallons of diesel inside the generator building, some of which eventually spread to the surrounding site.

A preliminary assessment by the county, the state Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency found spilled fuel had not spread to any surrounding streams. The closest of those streams is several hundred yards from the tower site.

Foster said the county brought in another generator to power the site after county Public Works department crews cleared nearly 5 miles of forest roads to reach the site.

David Bennett, a Department of Ecology spokesman, said the fuel had spilled into the deep snow surrounding the secure site, complicating the cleanup efforts.

The county, the environmental agencies and a private cleanup contractor are discussing how best to remove the spilled petroleum from the site.

Initial estimates show the fuel might have contaminated an area about 15 feet wide by 100 feet long and 10 feet deep. The full cleanup effort likely will have to wait until snow melts and heavy equipment can be brought to the site, Bennett said.

Meanwhile, the agencies involved will monitor the spill and position absorbent mats and barriers to keep the diesel from migrating.

Foster said working at the site has been difficult because of the recurring snowstorms in the past several weeks.

No specific cause for the fuel line failures has been has found. A regular site inspection before the incident had shown no signs of an incipient problem.

When the transmitter dropped off the network, other sites picked up the communications tasks, Foster said.

Bennett said the agencies involved are considering converting the mountaintop generators to run on propane instead of diesel to lessen the environmental damage if fuel lines break.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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