Paper mill oil leak pollutes nearby waters

Authorities have recovered more than 80% of the estimated 15,000 gallons of No. 2 heating oil from tank at Soundview

PUTNEY — An estimated 15,000 gallons of heating oil spilled from a tank at the Soundview Paper Company mill on Nov. 2, much of it entering Sacketts Brook, which flows into the Connecticut River.

Authorities have thus far recovered more than 12,000 gallons of the sludgy No. 2 heating oil, according to Mike Nucci, an environmental analyst with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation spill team.

He said he expected authorities to discover more of the missing oil when they excavate the ground underneath the oil tank.

Crews from the Putney Fire Department and Vermont HAZMAT Team responded to the spill, which the Brattleboro Reformer first reported, and installed spill booms to prevent the flow of oil and to absorb it.

"Everything we were trying to do at that point was to contain the spill," Nucci said. New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services installed a harbor boom, he said, to prevent more oil from escaping Sacketts Brook into the Connecticut River.

"This one was just a bad set of circumstances," Nucci said, and, "given the location of the tank and the volume" of oil, much larger than the residential basement heating oil spills that make up more of his work.

He suspected that the environmental impact may be limited to vegetation damaged or killed along Sacketts Brook. He said he has not observed impacted wildlife.

Nucci said it was too early to tell whether anyone was at fault for the spill, which he believes was caused by a fitting or coupling that broke. An investigation is possible, he added, and the state's work could continue for "a few months to a few years."

While Sacketts Brook, where authorities say oil first entered the water, is Vermont property, the Connecticut River, into which the brook flows, is in New Hampshire.

Andrew Madison, an investigator in oil remediation and compliance for New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services, said he had observed an oil sheen on the Connecticut River over the weekend, but the sheen was not visible on Monday.

"It looks bad, but it's actually very thin," Madison said of the sheen. "Once it gets to sheen, [the oil] is so thin, it's about one-hundredth the thickness of a human hair."

Madison said that, while he'll continue to monitor the river daily, he had not observed any wildlife impacts, such as fish kills or birds coated in oil.

Kathy Urffer, Vermont river steward at the Connecticut River Conservancy, said Sacketts Brook "has a lot of pressure on it," in terms of manmade environmental impact.

The paper mill's wastewater discharge pipe runs underneath the brook, discharging into the Connecticut River. According to Urffer, recreationists have complained about the smell and appearance of the discharge, and the paper company is required to look into potential chemical or biological reactions in the pipe as part of its state discharge permit.

Urffer said she planned to stay in communication with state officials to stay up to date on the spill.

"Our natural resources do recover," she said. "It's not going to be a catastrophic loss."

The operations director for the mill, a subsidiary of Marcal Paper, did not respond to an email with questions about the spill.

This News item by Ethan Weinstein originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates