By Marcia Moore and John Finnerty
The Daily Item
NEW COLUMBIA — Amanda Friend and her family were forced from their home late Thursday after a toxic acid-spewing Halliburton truck hauling 4,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid pulled into a neighboring convenience store.
“There was a huge plume in the air and it was just getting bigger and bigger,” Friend said Friday, several hours after the incident at the Short Stop Market parking lot in White Deer Township, Union County.
It was about 10:20 p.m. Thursday when Gregory Pellicer Jr., 28, of Lawton, Okla., noticed a cloud billowing behind the Halliburton Energy Services tanker he was driving east on Route 80 as he and co-driver Nicklaus Cunningham, 38, of Semmes, Ala., were headed from Homer City to Montrose, state police at Milton said.
Pellicer pulled off the highway and into the Short Stop Mart parking lot off Route 15 and he and Cunningham immediately began working to contain the leak, police said.
State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said an estimated 250 gallons leaked out and soil tests are being done to determine if there was any contamination.
“It’s an acid and it could be very damaging to humans and the environment,” he said.
Sunday said the cause of the leak is still under review, but a quarter-sized hole was observed in the truck. It’s too early to determine if penalties will be assessed Halliburton, he added.
Halliburton spokesman Susie McMichael said the company was transporting hydrochloric acid for drilling and production support services.
All company transports are certified annually through a state Department of Transportation-approved inspector and drivers are certified with hazmat training, she said, adding this particular truck was in compliance.
According to the police report, once the acid hits the air it vaporizes, causing a toxic gaseous cloud.
White Deer EMA Director Larry Maynard said fearful store employees fled.
The Short Stop Mart manager was called in and stayed until 7 a.m. when the store reopened after air quality tests were performed, the assistant manager said, declining to provide a name.
Soon after the Halliburton truck pulled into the store parking lot, Robert Friend was going to his parked car to lock it up for the night when he saw the activity next door, his wife said.
Amanda Friend said her husband, a former environmental services employee who is familiar with hazardous material cleanup procedures, noticed a cloud surrounding the gasoline pumps and saw the truck drivers placing ash on the ground and figured the leak involved acid.
“He called 911 and then woke me up,” she said, describing her fear when she saw the cloud of what she thought was smoke grow larger in the night sky. “I thought the gas station was on fire and would blow up.”
She roused her two sleeping children, ages 5 and 8, as White Deer and Milton fire department volunteers evacuated their home and four others nearby. Other area homeowners were told to keep their windows and doors closed.
The Friends drove to Selinsgrove to stay with relatives for the evening.
“When we leaving, the cloud was moving over the school,” Friend said.
She returned to her house alone Friday morning to await the arrival of DEP workers who performed soil tests in her backyard.
“I won’t bring my kids back until DEP tells me it’s okay,” she said.
The accident surprised others, as well.
With more than four decades of experience as a firefighter in White Deer, Maynard has seen his share of floods, thunderstorms and fires.
But he said none were quite as hair-raising as Thursday’s incident.
“This is the worst thing we’ve ever had to deal with,” Maynard said. “We are using to getting our feet wet, but this was a different situation.”
Pellicer, the driver of the Halliburton truck, “didn’t know where he was and he was just looking for a place to park,” Maynard said. “Unfortunately, he ended up here.”
Since Route 80 crosses White Deer Township, the fire department staff has worked carefully and rigorously to prepare for just this sort of emergency.
“If you want a shock, just park along I-80 and watch what goes by,” Maynard said.
“We’ve (trained) for this many times. It felt just like a drill,” he said. “But it was real.”
Emergency officials worry that accidents involving trucks carrying hazardous materials on the interstate could have an accident that would threaten residents who live in the township. In this case, the truck driver left I-80 and drove almost right into town.
Fortunately, Maynard said the wind Thursday night was blowing west and carried the cloud away from the village.
Later, when emergency crews had set up to monitor the situation a short distance away as DEP, and a hazmat crew from Halliburton and Northridge Group Inc. worked to stop the leak and move the truck from the scene and transfer the remaining contents to another vehicle, they could see the thick gas cloud hanging in the air.
At times, the cloud grew so thick, Maynard said, he could not even tell the convenience store was there.
New Columbia Road was shut down for about six hours during the cleanup.