An Oklahoma trucker driving a tanker filled with 4,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid along Interstate 80 late one recent night reacted naturally enough when he realized there was gas billowing from the rear of his rig.
All accounts provided by emergency responders indicate that the trucker exited the interstate at the first opportunity and began looking for a place to park his rig to deal with the problem.
He pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store on the edge of the village of New Columbia.
The trucker's response might be natural enough, but pulling a tanker leaking a toxic cloud of gas toward the nearest population center hardly seems wise.
Trucking manuals indicate that in such cases, drivers are advised to stay away from buildings and other places where people are gathered.
The acid was spewing through a quarter-sized hole in the tank. Rescuers evacuated the immediate area and nervously waited for someone to come and plug the leak. There were worries that the tank itself would fail calamitously before the leak was controlled.
The Department of Environmental Protect later estimated that about 250 gallons escaped from the tank before the leak was contained. Witnesses at the scene described a low-lying cloud that at times obscured the convenience store. After the evacuation and a careful cleanup involving local, state and company representatives -- the New Columbia situation was resolved safely.
A spokeswoman at Halliburton, the company that owned the tanker, helpfully explained that all the company's trucks are inspected and its drivers are duly certified, including the driver involved in the New Columbia episode.
And yet, there was a quarter-sized hole in the acid-hauling tanker parked on the edge of a sleeping village.
Emergency responders and trucking industry representatives alike worry about the potential for calamity due to the ceaseless stream of commercial haulers moving through on interstates and highways. State police and the Department of Transportation share the responsibility of ensuring that trucks are safe and operated safely. Their efforts are being tested by the growth of the gas drilling industry in the Northern Tier. In the wake of this experience, agencies responsible for protecting the public on the highway and living nearby should conduct a post-incident review and issue clear assurances that they have the training, resources and organization to fulfill their mandate. We now know that a potential tragedy is as close as one trucker's fateful decision to leave the interstate.