Fuel leak closes Court Plaza Building

Heating oil spill forces state workers, others to relocate

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2000

The state was scrambling today to find office space for 140 people shut out of the Court Plaza Building downtown after a fuel spill Sunday.

A malfunctioning float valve caused a fuel tank on the roof to overflow, spilling 100 to 200 gallons of heating oil inside the eight-story state office building, which some call the Spam Can. Response crews initially hoped to clean the diesel by Wednesday, but a spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles said the building will be closed indefinitely, and state employees with offices there should not report to work Tuesday.

"Fixing the Court Plaza Building is not going to come easily or quickly," said Bob King, spokesman. "We are looking for alternate office space to relocate people while the building can be fully cleaned up. But that's going to take awhile. I don't know how long, and we'll address all those issues later."

A security guard first noticed the spill and alerted state officials early Sunday. King said the fuel tank is housed in a structure on the roof and that the spilled fuel permeated through the building by trickling along plumbing pipes. The diesel has soaked carpeting, walls and possibly insulation, said Brad Thompson, director of the state Risk Management Division. He said the fuel is moving like a wave, mostly vertically toward the ground floor. Because the air quality is considered hazardous, only certified specialists are allowed inside the building.

The cleanup will require a crew trained to respond to petroleum hazards something the state doesn't have in Juneau so it has hired a local environmental consulting group to head the effort. Carson Dorn Inc. will send in a crew with respirators to remove any materials saturated with fuel, "hopefully today," Thompson said. Only the Carson Dorn crew will be allowed inside until the air quality reaches safe levels.

"It's anticipated at that point ... our own maintenance folk could then enter and assist in the cleanup," Thompson said.

The building is occupied mostly by state agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, the Division of Elections, and some administrative offices. The largest private tenant is the Alaska State Employees Federal Credit Union, which has about 5,000 customers in Juneau, said CEO Sharon Kelly.

Kelly said the credit union has moved operations to its administrative office across from the Department of Labor by the Douglas Bridge and that all bank systems are working. She said the state told her the fuel did not damage the credit union office, located on the ground floor, and that the financial institution's six employees may be allowed to return to the building by late today or tomorrow, if the air is safe. She said her biggest concern initially was whether the state would allow credit union employees to enter the Court Plaza Building to collect checks from a night deposit box, used often this time of year by customers depositing money to pay for Christmas purchases. Kelly said the state allowed the deposit box to remain open this morning.

"The indication is it should be safe go in quickly and check it," said Kelly, who added customers also may use deposit boxes located at the administrative office and at Super Bear grocery store.

The Associated Press also has an office in the building, but bureau chief Paul Queary said he can work from home while the state cleans up the fuel. However, if the building still is closed to tenants by next week, it will be a significant inconvenience, said Queary, who is gearing up to cover the legislative session scheduled to convene Jan. 8.

"I have something in the order of five to six interviews I had already done for my pre-session (stories) with people who are relatively difficult to get ahold of, and those are on my computer at the office, and I don't have any way to access them otherwise," Queary said.

King, from the governor's office, said several state employees have expressed similar concerns but that they will have to wait until the safety inspectors say it's safe to go in.

"Hopefully that will be soon - I don't know exactly when that's going to be," King said.

King said the state is still using the fuel tank to heat the building, but maintenance crews have rewired the float valve so it will sound an alarm if it fails again. He said the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities also is examining float valves in other state buildings.

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