Section of Interstate 70 shut down because of chemical leak reopened

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

A leak from a tanker carrying water mixed with hydrochloric acid residue prompted officials to close a stretch of Interstate 70 near Smithton for more than four hours on Sunday.

Authorities reported no injuries from the incident. Traffic backups on the busy highway reached 3 miles, however.

“You really hate to shut down 70. Under the circumstances, the driver being under that bridge, we had no choice,” Turkeytown fire Chief Larry Nemec said.

A motorist spotted a leaking valve on a Halliburton tanker at the intersection of I-70 and Fitzhenry Road about 11:45 a.m. and called 911, said Dan Stevens, spokesman for the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety.

As a precaution, crews halted east- and westbound traffic and diverted it onto Routes 51 and 31.

The county Hazardous Materials Response Team, multiple fire departments and Department of Environmental Protection officials responded to the scene.

John Poister, DEP spokesman, said the tanker was carrying 100 gallons of water with hydrochloric acid residue.

“The water was backflow from a cleaning project,” Poister said.

It did not get into any groundwater sources, he said.

“I think most of it evaporated on the pavement,” Poister said.

Nemec said that when he first arrived on the scene, the information he was given was that the tanker was carrying hydrochloric acid.

Because the tanker was stopped under an I-70 bridge, officials asked the nearby Flying J and Smithton Travel Center plazas to evacuate.

“The wind was blowing in that direction,” Nemec said.

The driver told him that he was headed to the Halliburton location in Homer City.

“He said the tanker had been washed out at a well site,” Nemec said.

“That (water mixed with the acid) is what they claimed it was. We got it from three different (sources). The shipping papers did not really show what was in there. We knew it was some type of acid. ... We originally thought it was pure hydrochloric acid. ... I would trust their (DEP) judgment. Halliburton confirmed it, and the driver told us (it was a water mixture),” Nemec said.

Halliburton spokeswoman Beverly Blohm Stafford said the truck released an undetermined amount of diluted acid.

“The remaining contents of the tanker have been transferred to a backup transport. Halliburton has notified all appropriate authorities, and our driver implemented emergency response actions,” Stafford said.

The company will investigate the cause of the release, she said.

“We are not sure if it vibrated open or what,” Stevens said.

Concern arose because the tanker was carrying hydrochloric acid.

“It could cause damage to paint on vehicles,” Stevens said.

Direct contact would be required for the acid to cause harm to individuals, Steven said.

Hazmat crews cleaned the spill with absorbent pads to prevent further runoff.

The stretch of highway between exits 46 and 51 reopened in both directions by 4:15 p.m. By then, many motorists found themselves on unfamiliar roadways.

Outside the Smithton Travel Center, truck drivers Mike Tabron, formerly of Belle Vernon, and Doug Heist of Cincinnati passed the time while waiting for I-70 to reopen.

Both had nearby Monday morning deliveries to make and said the idle hours would count toward their mandatory driving break time.

“We were eating breakfast when they evacuated us,” Tabron said.

He and fiancée, Terri Edwards, stay at the travel center motel on weekends and live out of his truck while making daily lumber deliveries, he said.

Heist said he is on the road three weeks at a time, traveling “anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains.”

The three rested bottles of soft drinks and iced tea in an open bag of ice while they waited out the shutdown.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or

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