PRESTON, Minnesota (STPNS) -- Things could have been much worse, but luckily no lives were lost or further damage occurred when an ethanol transport truck run by Cargo Transport Inc. rolled over and spilled ethanol at noon on Thursday, July 3.

The single-vehicle accident occurred about one-eighth of a mile southwest of Lanesboro on Highway 16. The Freightliner tractor was driven by 46-year-old Rita Benes of Bryant, Wis.

The Minnesota State Patrol accident report said the semi-tanker was eastbound on Highway 16. It went to the right, rolled, hit a bluff and then came to rest on its top.



The highway was closed as the tanker leaked ethanol, which was going into the South Branch Root River immediately next to it. The driver was initially trapped in the cab.

The Highway Patrol, Fillmore County Sheriff's Office, Lanesboro-Preston Police, Lanesboro fire and ambulance crews and Preston crews all responded to the accident.

Steve Klotz, director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area Fisheries office, contacted after the accident, had concerns on two levels. First, he reported there was no fish kill in the Root due to the ethanol. There were 8,000 to 8,500 gallons in the tanker. Initial estimates were that around half the amount was spilled, but after the accident it was determined around 3,000 gallons were lost. They did not necessarily all go into the river.

Klotz said that ethanol is soluble, which is different from gas, diesel or other fuels. Also, he noted the Root River is still high after recent rains. Its discharge apparently allowed the ethanol to dilute quickly.

There were no visible signs of it, although to be safe, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) closed the river to all recreational activity until determined safe, which had occurred by Thursday night. Julie Kiehne, executive director of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce, issued a press release on the Fourth of July letting potential visitors know the river was open and to remind them of the three-day holiday weekend.

Klotz also is the director for the Lanesboro ambulance crew. In that role, he had still more concerns about truck accidents like this on Highway 16. He said if he could, he would wish that the tanker traffic be rerouted away from Highway 16, a Scenic Byway marked by sharp corners and hills, following the Root River to the Mississippi. He felt it would be better to reroute the truck traffic to better and safer roads. The tankers come from the Poet Biorefining ethanol plant in Preston.

"It's only a matter of time," he said of the potential for a deadly accident.

Klotz noted it's also not safe for the emergency personnel responding to the accident due to the volatile nature of ethanol.

"It's a risk we shouldn't have to take," he stated.

Rich Eichstadt, general manager of Poet Biorefining, said like everyone, he wished the accident wouldn't have happened. He suspected it was a case of going too fast on the highway and hoped there would be a strict enforcement of speed.

Cargo Transport Inc., the ethanol hauling company, is "a couple companies removed" from Poet. Eichstadt said the company, out of Milwaukee, buys the ethanol and takes possession of it, running its own trucks and hiring its own drivers.

While not wishing to minimize the accident and the helpful response to it, Eichstadt said the local Poet company had nothing to do with the accident.

When asked about the possibilities of rerouting the ethanol transports, he said that would need to be taken up with the trucking company. A couple calls to Cargo Transport Inc. offices in Milwaukee were not answered.

Eichstadt did note that ethanol is biodegradable and felt it was nowhere near as bad as other fuels, which also have been spilled in accidents on Highway 16.