Daily Astorian

A ranch house may be the next victim of a tumbling pup trailer that spilled almost 5,000 gallons of diesel just north of Pendleton.

The truck driver lost control of his rig shortly after midnight on March 1 as he traveled Highway 37 near a farmhouse occupied by a Hill Ranches employee and his family. When Marty Ray Blancett reportedly swerved his Peterbilt truck to avoid a deer, the trailer carrying fuel broke loose and rolled down a steep embankment and settled into a ditch bottom. Thousands of gallons of diesel disappeared into the soil.

The driver had been driving from Pasco to Boise.

The spot quickly morphed into a Department of Environmental Quality clean-up site. Each morning, key players gather around a table in the command center -- a self-contained trailer with a satellite dish, generator and meeting room. DEQ's Mike Renz heads the effort, bolstered by three environmental recovery companies -- Eastern Oregon Environmental Recovery, SMAF Environmental and Steve Ritch Environmental -- and a team of heavy equipment operators, geologists and others.

The spill is like an octopus with multiple tentacles reaching out. Diesel tends to sink straight down and then travel sideways in various directions.

The goal is simple -- find the contaminated soil and dig it out. After two weeks, the pit has morphed into a rocky canyon with steep chocolate walls. Excavators continue to bite away at the spill's elusive edge, guided by a photo ionization detector that senses the presence of diesel.

The ranch house sits about 20 feet away from the gaping maw. The excavators have left an uneven edge as they remove toxic soil from the sidewall. A sidewalk ends abruptly there. A week ago, a nearby shed met the excavator's jaws.

Matt Bostwick, a 13-year employee of Hill Ranches, lived in the house with his wife Donna and three children. The family was asleep the night of the crash. Just after midnight, the sound of screeching metal woke Matt and Donna.

"The trailer scraped along the guardrail for a while before it went over," Matt said. "There was a series of thuds as it fell and landed in the gully."

Before sunrise, the clean-up operation was underway. Renz won't go on record with any sort of prediction for how long this operation will last.

"It's going to take as long as it takes," he said.

He's not being flip. There are so many variables, such as soil type and rainfall, which tends to cause the diesel to migrate further. There also are "operational constraints," which in this case consist of Highway 37 and the home. They sit on opposite sides of the ever-widening canyon. So far, only the north edge has tested clean.

"We're trying to protect human health and the environment," he said. "We've dug out about 18,000 yards of contaminated soil."

The bill for all this clean-up could be expensive. Maverik, the company that owns the truck, frequently has representatives and insurance people on-site. The company owns some 260 convenience/gas stores with an adventure sport motif.

Renz said air quality inside the home is top-of-mind.

On a dry erase board inside the command center are some thoughts written out in black marker from the day's meeting of planners. One notation in black marker said Maverik and the property owners are negotiating an agreement to take down the home to prevent possible diesel vapor exposure of future occupants.

Fritz Hill, one of the owners of the ranch, said he continues to visit the dig almost every day and is constantly amazed at the size of the pit. He wouldn't be surprised if the house comes down.

"We really have long-term concerns," he said. "The magnitude of this continues to grow -- this has gotten bigger than I ever imagined."

The world of environmental quality is a new one for Hill, but he's learning.

"I have no experience with this," he said. "It's like picking your way through a minefield, trying to understand the implications."

The Bostwick family is safely ensconced in a rental in Pendleton. Bostwick still hasn't been able to corral the family cat and the dog is boarding with family members.

"We're in standby mode," Bostwick said.

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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