NEWINGTON - A fuel leak that cost town employees countless man hours, $2.5 million to clean up and caused irreparable damage to the area around the town’s main campus could have been prevented, according to the findings of an investigative report recently released.
Regular maintenance and inspections of the diesel fuel system at the school bus garage on Garfield Street would have revealed crucial issues before 14,400 gallons of fuel leached into the ground over the course of a year, Dr. Gordon Binkhorst told Newington’s Town Council at its last meeting.
“While 180 gallons a day went into school buses, 160 gallons a day went into the ground,” Binkhorst said of the highest point in the leakage, right before its discovery on Dec. 27, after a resident reported an odor in the area.
Binkhorst, a senior hydrogeologist at ALTA Environmental Corp. in Colchester, was hired by the council and Board of Education for $12,000 to conduct an investigation into the cause of the spill. He interviewed 23 people, from town and school staff, to associates with the companies that installed and serviced the faulty equipment. Former transportation supervisor Alan Avery declined to be interviewed. He retired from Newington schools in March.
Had school personnel followed a Spill Prevention and Countermeasures Plan (SPCC), according to Binkhorst, they would have found corrosion on the system’s piping, water in various stages eroding the sump pump, and a non-functioning alarm probe. He shared photographs taken in 2011 of corrosion on a rusted adapter fitting, with visible holes. Water in the sump was the likely culprit for this corrosion, which led fuel to leak into and eventually overflow from the sump and into the soil.
“The operation of the tank system basically consisted of Board of Ed personnel periodically sticking the tank and ordering diesel fuel on an as-needed basis,” Binkhorst explained. “They did not complete any routine inspections or maintenance, according to service records and interviews. Service work was primarily reactionary in nature.”
The last record of anyone inspecting the sump was in 2014, by Lemelin Environmental, the installer. School mechanic Dennis Dubois indicated that staff removed water from the sump five or six times, but he never observed fuel in the sump until the leak was discovered.
Furthermore, records of bus drivers’ mileage and fuel consumption kept by the town’s Fuel Master computer software revealed a 150 percent increase in deliveries from late 2016 through 2017. Staff claimed to have no knowledge of this discrepancy, which should have been detected and investigated.
“The information was available had somebody wanted it,” Binkhorst pointed out. “The leak went undetected for over a year due to alarm probe failure as well as the lack of any inspections and periodic inventory reconciliation.”
A tank at the highway department across town is inspected daily by staff, he added.
Unbeknownst to the council and BOE, Superintendent of Schools William Collins released an investigative report earlier that week, compiled by his own staff. Councilors called the move “disconcerting” and “offensive” – urging the BOE to take disciplinary action.
“The superintendent went rogue, forgot about his daily duties and conducted his own investigation,” Beth DelBuono said. “We have no oversight of the superintendent. The only people who do are Board of Education members. We can be disgusted but we can’t do anything about it.”
The BOE - the only body with the authority over school personnel - is expected to follow up on the matter. It has paid the majority of the bill thus far, aside from insurance coverage and $1.5 million in state assistance recently granted.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.