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UPDATED: Complex clean-up efforts ongoing at site of fatal truck crash into Red Cedar

A diver from Midwest Underwater Specialties surfaces after collecting another 40-pound bag of Scotts fertilizer from waters beneath bridges crossing the Red Cedar River, east of Menomonie. Contributed photo.1 / 2
This image was made just hours after a semi tractor-trailer rig careened off westbound I-94 and entered the Red Cedar River, between the two bridges. Contributed photo.2 / 2

The difficult and dangerous cleanup of chemicals from the Red Cedar River at Menomonie continued Thursday with cleanup crews making significant progress, the state Department of Natural Resources reports.

Underwater video shows fish swimming above the debris field at the bottom of the river, an indication that cold temperatures are dampening the toxicity of the commercial fertilizer that spilled into the river during a tragic semi-trailer truck crash 10 days ago.

On March 5, during a snowstorm, a Dashman's Transport truck carrying 23,800 pounds of fertilizer in 40-pound bags skidded off I-94 in the median between two bridge spans, went airborne and crashed through the river ice into 25 feet of water. The cab was carrying two drivers --both from Minneapolis -- who died in the crash.

The initial emergency response focused on recovering the men's bodies and removing the truck wreckage from the river. The trailer had broken apart and all 595 bags - Scotts brand lawn fertilizer with an herbicide to inhibit the growth of crabgrass - entered the river.

"The cleanup has been fraught with difficulty," said Tom Kendzierski, DNR spill coordinator. "The material lies below the broken ice sheet in 25 feet of water at the base of steeply sloping stream banks."

The site is located between the two spans of the I-94 bridge, blocking access by heavy equipment on barges. Traffic on I-94 is fast and heavy.

Construction equipment was already in place, just upstream of the bridge, and the Lunda Construction Company had already begun the process of replacing both bridge spans, work that will continue throughout the 2013 construction season.

There are only two means to access the site - either by water from the upstream landing built by Lunda or by placing heavy equipment on the bridge. Access from the bridge means lane closures that create significant safety issues.

"Timing for the cleanup is critical because spring runoff is likely to occur in the near future with increased volumes of water, swifter currents and the breakup and movement of river ice," Kendzierski said. "Additionally, any delays in the complex bridge construction schedule will be problematic and costly."

It took two days, in inclement weather, to remove the main portion of the truck and to find the second driver. On March 7 the cleanup began with the staging of equipment. Crew members working by hand placed containment booms and started to collect diesel fuel from the truck tractor that had floated to the surface along with floating debris. A device was improvised to scoop out broken and contaminated ice chunks but the attempt fell short of expectations.

On the morning of March 8, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation allowed a three-hour lane closure so a vacuum truck could be placed on the bridge to remove more of the diesel fuel and improve working conditions on the water. Hand crews continued to manage containment booms, pick up debris and put absorbent pads in place.

On Saturday, March 9, salvage divers mapped the bottom of the river in the area of spill. Video taken by these divers shows living fish. No dead fish have been reported.

Hand work on the river, with divers and boat crews, continued early this week while a plan was devised to remove the fertilizer from the river. Engineers with Lunda and the DOT calculated safe loading levels for a crane to work on the bridge.

Meanwhile, DNR water quality biologists have been working with the Scotts Company and the cleanup contractor, Wenck Associates, to assess the likely environmental effects of the spill. There was no phosphorus in the product. One concern is whether the ammonia being released by the fertilizer will be toxic to aquatic life.

Preliminary samples - taken upstream, at the crash site and downstream - did not show a significant difference in ammonia or pH in any of the samples.

The HALTS herbicide is yellow. It is hydrophobic (doesn't mix well with water) and floats. This yellow substance is being corralled within the containment booms and collected. Some of it is under and on the ice.

Divers resumed salvage work Wednesday and recovered about 80 bags of saturated fertilizer, which were brought to the surface by hand. They also identified another underwater pile of bags and when work concluded Thursday, a total of 209 bags had been recovered and no more were expected to be found.

A single lane of traffic was closed overnight Wednesday so a crane furnished and operated by Lunda Construction could remove contaminated ice chunks from the water and debris collected on the banks. While the attempt to remove ice chunks was not successful, large amounts of debris and bags collected along the bank were removed.

A vacuum truck collected accumulated diesel and herbicide corralled on the water surface, improving working conditions for divers from Midwest Underwater Specialties.

The DNR will continue to monitor water quality. Cleanup crews will place additional booms below the spill site to collect remaining contaminants that float to the surface. This effort is likely to continue for weeks.

Every effort is being made to minimize harmful effects from this spill. While large amounts of fertilizer are being removed, a significant amount cannot be recovered. The extent of the damage is not yet known.

DNR officials praised the cooperative efforts of all involved, including Progressive Insurance, representing Dashman's Transport, the ERTS emergency response team, Wenck Associates, Lunda Construction, the State Patrol, WisDOT, Dunn County Highway Department, the Scotts Company and the salvage divers from Midwest Underwater Specialties who have been working in difficult and dangerous conditions.