Haz mat team tackles creosote spill in Merrimack River

NASHUA – A local hazardous materials team and state environmental officials helped Beazer East Inc. workers clean up a chemical spill Thursday, when creosote from a polluted site leaked over barriers into the Merrimack River.

The creosote, which is used as a wood preservative, got into the river north of Greeley Park from the so-called Beazer site, local and state officials said.

Creosote has long been a problem at the property, which was contaminated during decades of use for treating railroad ties.

A state Department of Environmental Services official said he wasn’t sure how big the spill was, only that it extended toward the Greeley Park boat launch from the Beazer site, located north of the park. A state environmental crew returned Friday to make sure the oily sheen had been contained, state officials said.

“We’ve been working cooperatively with the state to address the issues at the site,” said Mike Bollinger, manager of remediation with Beazer.

The incident began when a resident alerted local officials shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday. Nashua Fire Rescue responded with two engines, a ladder truck and a special hazardous material command unit, according to Deputy Chief Steven Galipeau.

State DES officials also arrived, and booms were placed on the river to contain the spill, Galipeau said.The spill occurred when water contaminated with creosote overtopped a barrier similar to the type used around construction sites, said Michael McCluskey of the department’s hazardous waste remediation bureau.

“The Merrimack River fluctuates in elevation, sometimes unexpectedly,” Bollinger said.

Beazer will be examining the system used to retain the creosote contamination to make sure it’s functioning properly and efficiently, Bollinger said.

State environmental officials also will be evaluating the effectiveness of the retaining wall and other cleanup procedures, McCluskey said.

Coal tar creosote is a common wood preservative and has an oily texture. It can cause skin and eye irritation if touched, and burning in the throat and stomach if ingested, said Dennis Pinksi, a supervisor with the DES environmental health program.

City emergency crews left the scene shortly after noon Thursday, as DES crews working with Beazer employees took charge of the cleanup. The DES also returned Friday, McCluskey said.

“The opportunity for exposure is limited, but it’s still a serious thing,” Pinski said.

While it’s unlikely that anyone was exposed to a surface water contamination, the spill must be cleaned up, he said.

Beazer East Inc. of Pittsburgh acquired the 97-acre site and office building in 1984 from the Koppers Co., a former manufacturer of railroad ties.

The company treated the ties with creosote, a mixture of chemicals. The state shut down Koppers Co. in the early 1980s, when it was discovered that creosote and arsenic from the site were seeping into the Merrimack River.

Beazer East is under a consent agreement with the DES to clean up contamination at the site, McCluskey said.

The company has been progressing with the work, but not as quickly as the state would have liked, McCluskey said.

“There’s been a lot of work done on the site over a number of years,” Bollinger said.

“Right now, we’re in investigation mode,” he said.

Beazer will be conducting test borings and sediment sampling, as weather allows, to prepare for formulating a final remediation plan, Bollinger said.

Strong local opposition thwarted efforts to build a privately funded bridge that would have crossed the Merrimack River near the 100-acre site, which is being eyed for redevelopment once the cleanup is finished.