Commonwealth Journal

Local News

February 10, 2014

Fuel from tanker crash has seeped into cave system

Somerset — Clean-up efforts are continuing nearly two weeks after a tanker truck carrying more than 8,000 gallons of fuel overturned in the Sloans Valley area of southern Pulaski County.

“Clearly there are issues,” said Kevin Strohmeier, with the Department for Environmental Protection’s  Environmental Response Team. “It’s gotten into the cave system, to an extent.”

The cave system Strohmeier is speaking of is the Sloans Valley cave system, which features more than 20 miles of caverns and tunnels, and several entrances.

Strohmeier said the clean-up has been active since the Jan. 30 accident that left a tanker truck driver seriously injured. The truck left South U.S. 27 and flipped, trapping the driver, McCreary County resident Lucas Gregory, underneath. Gregory was freed by rescue squad members, but the situation remained a dangerous one because much of the 8,250 gallons of fuel Gregory was hauling escaped into the surrounding area after the tank was punctured.

The gas pooled in the area, in some places as much as two feet deep. The situation warranted a complete shut-down of U.S. 27 for around 12 hours.

And the gas was able to move into the surrounding area, including into the culverts, into a nearby stream, and eventually into parts of the nearby cave system.

The system has long been the focus of cavers across the country, with its many entrances such as Minton Hollow, the Garbage Pit, Great Rock Sinks, “Screamin’ Willies,” and the Greenhouse entrance — all of which are located on private property in southern Pulaski County.  

But recently, its been closed to cavers after worries about the possible spread of the fatal white-nose syndrome, which would affect the Sloan Valley cave’s population of gray and Indiana bats. The disease is believed to be spread by the transfer of sediments from cave to cave by cavers’ boots and other equipment.

Now, the entrances to the caves are closed for another reason — the potentially dangerous situation caused by the infiltration of the volatile chemical into the system.

Strohmeier said equipment detected the gasoline had leaked into the area around the Garbage Pit entrance — but he noted that readings taken in the area on Friday revealed no detectable levels of gas.

Still, that doesn’t mean the cave is safe. Strohmeier said signs have been placed at the entrances warning of the possibly hazardous situation, and he added that people shouldn’t be entering the caves anyway, due to the concerns over the bat population there.

But in spite of those warnings, Strohmeier said people entered the caves over the weekend.

“Do not enter the caves until the clean-up is completed and we can evaluate the area,” emphasized Strohmeier.

Besides the concerns over the health of the bats — and Strohmeier said Fish and Wildlife is looking into whether the gas spill would affect the animals — and the gas spill, the caves remain relatively dangerous, especially for those who aren’t experienced spelunkers.

In 2009, a 21-year-old man fell to his death in the caves while there with friends. The group members were not experienced cavers, and had little in the way of appropriate caving equipment with them. In 2006, an experienced caver from Ohio fell and was killed while trying to exit the cave system by way of a vertical entrance.

Strohmeier said they’ve used a vacuum truck and absorbent pads to help soak the gasoline up, and they’re hopeful the impact to the cave system is minimal.

As of Sunday, Strohmeier said readings were still showing detectable levels of fuel at the immediate site of the crash.

Strohmeier said it’s difficult to know how long the clean-up will continue.

“It really is hard to say,” said Strohmeier.

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