By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Just after 7 a.m. this morning, a tractor-trailer towing more than 9,000 gallons of liquid asphalt lost its secondary trailer in a ditch on the west side of Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon. The “pup” trailer was torn apart and began spilling its 3,000-gallon payload.
The southbound truck rounded a sweeping corner and began climbing a gradual hill near mile marker 39 when the driver Sam Hulet felt the smaller of two trailers pulling his rig off the road.
“I felt the pup pulling to the right [and] I thought it was going to pull me in [the ditch] with it,” said Sam, a driver for Johnny B Transport based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He fought to keep the rig on the pavement as the tongue of the trailer sheared off from the primary trailer, sending the tank crashing into the ditch.
The outer shell of the tank – and the insulation beneath it – was ripped off on impact, and a seam on the rear of the inner tank failed, spilling its molten contents across the highway from the Gallatin River on the west side of the road.
“[The driver] tried to ride it out and bring it back up,” said Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Brad Moore, citing his initial investigation. “He didn’t go into the other lane at all which is great. There was a lot of torque put on [that truck].”
Four hours after the spill, the liquid asphalt – which comes from crude oil – was still bubbling and steaming behind the makeshift dam that Sam and his brother John had built to contain the spill. John was driving his own double oil tanker ahead of Sam when the accident occurred. He turned around at 320 Ranch and came back to help his brother slow the spill with dirt and insulation that was ripped out of the mangled tanker.
“They did a great job of digging and making a dam to maintain the spill as best they could,” Trooper Moore said. “They checked to see if there were any culverts to make sure it’s not going to go in the river.”
John said spill remediation isn’t part of their driver training, but they worked fast to keep the asphalt from reaching the Gallatin.
“The last thing we wanted is for it to go in the river,” he said. “If there’s a culvert under the snow it makes cleanup worse than it already is.” A small tongue of the asphalt had sliced downhill but seemed to have stopped about 300 feet above the nearest culvert.
The load was en route from Laurel, Mont. to Blackfoot, Idaho, a trip the brothers say they take four times a week. The liquid asphalt is loaded into their rigs at 360 F, according to John, and is about 320 F when it reaches Blackfoot.
The incident was reported to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality by the Department of Disaster and Emergency Services, which estimated that all 3,000 gallons had leaked from trailer, according to DEQ Environmental Enforcement Specialist Shasta Steinweden. She said the report indicated there would be no impact to the river.
“Asphalt usually hardens pretty quickly,” Steinweden said.