Talking Michigan Transportation

Reopening a major freeway after a tanker fire

July 15, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 65
Talking Michigan Transportation
Reopening a major freeway after a tanker fire
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation, a conversation with Adam Wayne, a construction engineer in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Metro Region, who is helping coordinate repairs to I-75 in the wake of a massive tanker crash and fire July 12. 

The tanker, carrying 13,000 gallons of fuel, crashed into a barrier wall on I-75 in Troy, igniting a fire that closed both sides of the freeway, scorching the highway and median.  

Wayne explains the process for evaluating the damage to pavement after an incident of this magnitude and why most freeway lanes will be closed for several days. 

He also talks about how fire and extreme heat cause the water in concrete to turn to steam, causing extensive damage in a short amount of time, as illustrated in this 2019 Popular Mechanics story and video. As the surface takes on a soft, chalky consistency, it turns to dust. 

The crash occurred on a segment of I-75 that was essentially brand new pavement, part of a major modernization of the freeway across Oakland County. 

As police continue the investigation into the cause of the crash, there is a process for recovery from insurance companies for any crash that involves damage to state-owned infrastructure. The protocol calls for MDOT to compile expenses from incident response, cleanup and eventual repair. These expenses are from MDOT and any local or other state agencies that participate.  

A bill signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019 amended the Insurance Code to allow access to the full amount of insurance coverage, up to $5 million, for damages to property by vehicles subject to federal insurance requirements. The bill allows the state to recover more money in damages if a motorist is found at fault for infrastructure damages. 


Jeff Cranson: I’m Jeff Cranson, and this is Talking Michigan Transportation.


Cranson: You no doubt heard, especially if you live in Metro Detroit, that a truck carrying fuel crashed on I-75 in Oakland County Monday afternoon, igniting flames that severely damaged the highway and the median and created environmental cleanup challenges meaning limited use of the freeway for several days. Today, I'll be speaking with Adam Wayne, an MDOT construction engineer, who has been deeply involved in efforts to repair and reopen the busy freeway while coordinating with other state and local agencies. Okay, so, once again, Adam, thank you for being here. I appreciate it.

Adam Wayne: Of course, Jeff. My pleasure. Thank you.

Cranson: So, let's talk a little bit about what you've been seeing these last few days as you've got a better chance to look at the freeway and, you know, what the pavement looks like and how badly it was damaged and what kinds of things you look for after an incident like this.

Wayne: Well, first and foremost, what we look for in an incident like this, of course, after the particular crash site has been cleared by first responders and by the hazmat team, we look for any defects in the pavement that would be an immediate hazard to the motoring public. We try to assess the damage on a priority for how we can reopen the roadway. Then we go into further detail to see how an impact such as a tank truck fire impacts the lifetime of the pavement. So, we look for any type of surface defect within the vicinity of the burned area that has impacted the concrete roadway. There is, you know, a little bit more of a unique condition in this stretch of I-75 where we have a specific surface treatment on the roadway. It is what we call a high friction surface treatment. This is a curved freeway with 70 mile an hour speeds, so we've placed this treatment so that motorists can have additional traction when going around these curves. What that also means is that it's more susceptible to fire damage and to the impacts that we'd see on a tank truck. So, there's a multitude of items that we look for on the roadway itself. In addition, we had this tank truck fire immediately adjacent to our concrete barrier wall, so we're both assessing the condition of the pavement and the barrier wall as well.

Cranson: So, a lot of people probably think, you know, “I would certainly get it if it's a timber bridge and, you know, what the damage a fire can do.” What can fire do to concrete? Is it about, you know, melting the rebar inside the concrete, or is it the actual, you know, concrete mix itself that's susceptible to the heat?

Wayne: It's the actual concrete mix itself that is susceptible to the heat. When we have concrete that's placed on the roadway, we're looking at, you know, a combination of natural aggregate so natural stone and recycled concrete in the roadway itself. So, when you have a fire, these aggregates, stone, they have water trapped within their surface and a fire actually turns that water into steam, causing those aggregates, that stone, to pop out and expand. That's where we see, essentially, potholes instantly forming because of the sheer heat of the fire. When you get into a little bit of a closer look at the concrete surface, what we also see because of the heat damage is that, you know, your hard cement that's on top of the concrete turns into a soft, chalky consistency and almost just turns instantly into dust because of the heat. So, that impacts the longevity of the concrete surface itself, and it impacts the ability for that high friction surface treatment to actually stick to the concrete versus just peel up if we were to place that directly over the damaged pavement.

Cranson: So, that's really interesting. What was the age of this pavement? This was part of a of a fairly recent project, right?

Wayne: So, this is brand new pavement. I believe we placed northbound and southbound in 2019 and 2018. So, with damage to this extent of a brand-new roadway, what we're looking for is to essentially replace the complete concrete section with new concrete so that the replaced pavement has the same longevity and life as the new pavement around it.

Cranson: I’m told that we benefited a little bit because there was still, you know, some remaining work items on that project, so some of the support that you need, I guess, in terms of replacing the concrete and stuff was still in place.

Wayne: Yes, with this being an active construction project, we were able to mobilize our contractor. Essentially the very next day we were able to get equipment on site to immediately begin removing the concrete barrier, and then saw cutting on the concrete and removing that so that we can begin repairs immediately. So, that's one of the differences that we see in a response situation like this in a construction project versus if this was an existing roadway, we'd have to try and find a contractor who's available. With the circumstances that we have, we had the equipment on site we were able to mobilize and essentially begin repairs immediately.

Cranson: Still, it takes some days and given the volume of traffic out there and what an important artery that is, there's a lot of impatience and a lot of people wondering, you know, “Come on, the tanker fire was Monday. Why can't we get this thing opened up?” So, could you talk more about not only having to assess the damage but what else needs to be done in your coordination with the other agencies, especially EGLE and the environmental concerns out there?

Wayne: Absolutely. It's a significant process to try and reopen a freeway after a tank truck fire of this scale. Essentially, we have, you know, what I call two arms of our response. We have the roadway repair response with our contractor, and then we have the coordination between MDOT and EGLE on the environmental remediation portion. So, that's where as we've mobilized our construction crews to address the roadway impacts, EGLE is coordinating remediation efforts to maintain isolation on the fuel that ran off from the truck fire, and then also to start assessing how much of that may have impacted soil the vegetation within the ditch lines and what needs to be done in order to really minimize, to the greatest extent possible, any type of downstream release or any type of impact to the groundwater and the ecology in the area.

Cranson: Do you have any sense of, and maybe this is something EGLE is still trying to assess, but how many gallons actually burned up versus how many, you know, made its way into the road and perhaps the waterways?

Wayne: Yeah, that's one of the challenging parts to assess, you know. We know some general details from the first responders and from the trucking company that this was a tank truck carrying approximately 13,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline. When first responders were able to extinguish the fire, we removed about 1,500 gallons of diesel and firefighting foam from the truck itself. So, that leaves a certain amount unaccounted for, which the environmental response group is trying to calculate, you know, how much potentially burnt off, how much may have, you know, gone down into the ditch line, and what we're isolating and how much we have to, you know, really try and remediate. So, it's a little bit of a work in progress to try and estimate that number, and EGLE has been working with the environmental company to try and assess those impacts.

Cranson: So, long term, do you feel you you'll be able to—I mean, and you have to assess that barrier wall which we should point out, I guess, while we're talking about it, the barrier wall, if you look at the video, seems to have done its job. That's a good thing.

Wayne: Absolutely, you know, this is new infrastructure that we're constructing to, you know, the latest safety standards with our I-75 modernization projects, especially in these high traffic and curved areas safety is our top priority with construction, so the barrier wall did its job. When the tank truck impacted the barrier wall, it actually leaned up against it before it came to a stop. That's how we had fuel that spilled over onto southbound 75. So, that's why we see both northbound and southbound impacted by this incident where fuel was on both sides of the roadway and burned for approximately two hours.

Cranson: Do you have any—is it too early to say—do you have any kind of ballpark estimate on what we might be talking about for the cost of these repairs?

Wayne: So, our preliminary estimate is around $1.5 million dollars for the road repairs themselves. I mean, of course, this is just based on, you know, our initial assessment of the damage. These detailed costs will be forthcoming as we progress throughout the repairs. We're monitoring, you know, the extents of our removals and what's been impacted. The costs themselves for the remediation side of this incident is being handled directly by EGLE and the environmental cleanup company.

Cranson: And we've talked a little bit with our Attorney General division about the efforts to recover costs and what we're allowed to do. The legislature actually passed a law that Governor Whitmer signed in 2019 that upped the caps on what could be recovered from insurance companies in these incidences. So, I’ll include some information about that in the show notes for people that are interested because I know that's been a big question from people this week is whether or not these companies end up having to cover some of these things by insurance. What else would you want people to know about your efforts out there and how quickly people are working and, you know, the coordination it takes between, you know, a lot of different agencies that have to come together and be mindful of the environmental impact, but also be mindful of, you know, what's this costing economically in terms of delays to commercial traffic and ordinary commuters?

Wayne: With that in mind, just kind of rewinding a little bit to when the crash first took place, just the sheer amount of coordination that takes place between MDOT, Troy Police and Fire Department, the first responding agency, Oakland County, Hazmat crew, MDOT first responders. There's a significant number of resources that are immediately deployed when an incident like this happens on an interstate route. So, just with that scale of the first response, you know, absolutely the credit goes to the boots on the ground folks who are actually there ensuring that the fire is extinguished and that any type of discharge is really mitigated to the greatest extent possible, you know. Now we're in more of a repair, remediation effort. There's still a significant amount of coordination between MDOT and our contractor, EGLE and the cleanup crew in order that we maintain a safe work zone for both operations, and that's where we get into the mobility impact. It's a significant corridor within the Metro Detroit area. We have to do these repairs safely, and we have to expedite them to the greatest extent possible. So, we're looking at scheduling crews to really have this opened up as soon as we safely can. Another one of the challenges that we're working with because this is a concrete freeway is that we also have to account for the time that it takes for the concrete itself to cure. Once we place it, it's not a material that we can immediately drive on the next day. We have to wait a minimum between 7 and 14 days for that surface to achieve sufficient strength to actually put traffic on those lanes, so that's one of the factors that we're taking into our schedule when we're looking at when we can repair and reopen the stretch of roadway.

Cranson: Yeah, that's the thing, it's just going to require a great deal of patience. Then I understand the frustration, and I know you and other people that work in construction certainly understand that too because your job is to build it and to do whatever you can to ease mobility for everybody. I mean, you drive yourself, so you know what it's like to be inconvenienced.

Wayne: Oh, yes.

Cranson: Got to be safe. I noticed in my research that there's been some others of these around the country. And, you know, people deal with them differently, but it's not uncommon to have delays of up to a month from the time that one of these incidents happens until you can reopen all the lanes. So, that's just the reality, I guess.

Wayne: Unfortunately, and that's what, you know, we're looking at similar time frames and, you know, trying to get this work done as safely and quickly as possible. But we're having to construct it part width, meaning that, you know, we can only repair replace half of the roadway at a time because we're trying to main traffic through this corridor. So, we really have to build it in stages where we remove, replace one portion of it, and then we shift traffic onto the newly replaced lanes then reconstruct the remaining.

Cranson: Yeah, well, thanks, Adam, for explaining that and for everything you're doing out there. I appreciate it and know that you and the other agencies are trying to work as quickly as possible.

Wayne: Absolutely. Thank you for your time today, Jeff.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.