EPA says Speedway knew of leak days before house explosion

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SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Speedway officials knew about a gasoline leak at a west suburban station and notified environmental officials up to four days before the leak caused explosions, fires and evacuations in Willowbrook, according to the Illinois EPA.

Even as mitigation efforts continue from the leak  that contaminated the Flagg Creek Sanitary District sewer system and caused multiple fires and explosions in the Knolls Condominium Complex, the agency has referred the matter for possible “enforcement action.”

Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina announced Monday he has asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office to take action against Speedway LLC for “releasing gasoline into the sanitary sewer system in DuPage County,” a statement from the agency said. The request seeks “immediate injunctive relief.”

EPA wants an order “requiring the company to immediately control any additional gasoline at the site, investigate the cause of the release, and remediate contamination and continue air monitoring on the sewer line,” the statement said.

The leak originated from the Speedway station on South Cass Avenue near 63rd Street in Westmont, where gasoline leaked from underground storage tanks into a sanitary sewer line, according to Westmont village spokesman Larry McIntyre.

Authorities in the area received more than 10 reports of “noxious odors” between 2 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Friday, as well as reports of at least two explosions, McIntyre said. One of the explosions resulted in two injuries.

The first explosion happened about 9 a.m. Friday at a condominium complex in the 6100 block of Knollwood Road in Willowbrook, according to Willowbrook Police Chief Robert Pavelchik.

An 81-year-old woman was transported to a hospital with burns, but is expected to fully recover. The other injured person was treated at the scene, he said. A second fire and two more explosions were reported a few blocks away in the same subdivision. A dog was rescued from the fire, but no injuries were reported.

By Saturday, firefighters had responded to more than 100 reports of noxious odors and at least 10 flashes and/or explosions and fires — mostly along 63rd Street between Cass and Route 83.

A day earlier, on October 19, the Tri-State Fire Protection District contacted the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to “report an odor of nail polish remover and a high Lower Explosive Limit of unknown origin in lower garden apartments on Knoll Valley Drive,” according to the EPA.

“At the time, it did not appear to be a petroleum-based odor” and officials could not locate the source.
On October 20, the fire protection district notified the EPA that the odor “extended over a half mile in the sanitary sewer,” EPA said.

After the explosions were reported, EPA representatives responded and traced the source to the Speedway station.

Station owners reported they had “become aware of an issue with loss of product on Monday, October 16″ and began pumping out their tanks on Thursday, EPA said.

“The release resulted in the explosion with one injury, multiple house fires, and fourteen manhole covers blown off due to pressure in the sanitary sewer,” EPA said.

In referring the incident to the attorney general, EPA claims Speedway violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act when it caused or allowed the discharge of contaminants, leading to air pollution and  “a water pollution hazard.”

Speedway said in a statement Tuesday: “Speedway’s top priority is to ensure the safety of all residents and responders within the impacted area. We are working with local municipalities and regulatory agencies to reach a timely and efficient resolution to this event.

“Clean-up efforts and an investigation into the cause of the leak are on-going. Rain has hindered some aspects of both efforts, but work will continue, provided conditions are safe.

“Speedway has assembled an emergency response team of more than 100 employees who are trained to resolve issues and return impacted persons, businesses and areas to normal in a timely, efficient manner.”

After the initial explosion and fire, firefighters went door-to-door to have everyone turn off their gas and electricity.  Utility power was later cut off to the entire subdivision, affecting about 70 homes, police said. Most residents had power restored by Saturday, when they were allowed to return to their homes.

There have been no reports of “flashes/explosions in buildings” since 2 p.m. Friday, McIntyre said. There were reports of a noise sounding like a “minor explosion” on Saturday evening, but “no physical evidence of damage was found.”

The contaminated sanitary sewer line was plugged Friday afternoon to prevent further contamination, McIntyre said. The leak at the gas station was also stopped and all of the gas removed from the underground tanks.

Speedway sent representatives and contractors to test for gasoline and gas vapors in the sewers, he said. The sewer lines were being flushed with water and emulsifiers were being added to mitigate the effects of the leak.

While the tests “revealed some areas to have higher readings than other areas, no dangerous and/or explosive levels have been found since the mitigation process began,” McIntyre said. Speedway also sent representatives to homes to take additional readings.

The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois initially said they responded to an explosion and “multiple fires” in Willowbrook, helping residents who have been evacuated by providing them with food and water.

Speedway’s statement said it “has made temporary living arrangements available for everyone displaced by this event.”

Affected individuals or businesses can file a claim with Speedway by calling (866) 601-5880 or going to speedwayresponse.com. Speedway also set up a claims center at Willowbrook Square at 38 W. 63rd St.

Anyone who smells gas in a home or business is warned to call 911 immediately.