‘Runaway’ fuel tank found in creek 8 miles downstream

A runaway fuel tank sits on the bottom of Cattaraugus Creek near Gowanda, about eight miles from where it was lost due to heavy rains in Cattaraugus on July 23.

GOWANDA — Cattaraugus County Public Works officials found a runaway fuel tank in Cattaraugus Creek in the Zoar Valley Gorge on Friday — eight days and 8 miles from where it was swept away by floodwaters.

The 500-gallon tank was about half full of diesel fuel when it was swept away July 16 from a bridge construction site on Tannery Street in Cattaraugus.

The next day, it was discovered by two kayakers on Cattaraugus Creek, more than a mile from the confluence with the South Branch. Along its path, it plunged over the 15-foot-high Zoar Big Falls on the South Branch.

Public Works Commissioner Kathleen Ellis and Mark Burr, director of engineering, located the tank on Friday based on a description of the location by members of the Zoar Valley Paddling Club.

It was located about a quarter-mile west of “Cruncher,” a geological formation on the creek near the end of Valentine Flats. That’s about 8 miles from the construction site on the South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek.

“The tank is badly damaged,” Burr told the Olean Times Herald on Monday. “It looks like the fuel leaked out and it was mostly full of water. I was hoping we’d find the fuel tank intact, but there were two holes in it.”

Burr said there was a bit of a smell of diesel at the tank, but no sheen on the water to indicate fuel was still leaking.

He notified the state Department of Environmental Conservation of his findings.

“They felt the environmental risk is already gone,” he said. “They want it out of there, but the urgency is diminished.”

Burr added, “It will be very difficult to get the tank out of there. Any equipment you could get down there would probably do more environmental damage.”

Some have suggested using a helicopter to hoist it out of the gorge.

The information on the tank has been turned over to the DEC, the contractor, Edbauer Construction of West Seneca, and the firm’s insurance company.

Meanwhile, work at the $2.1 million bridge construction site on Tannery Street in Cattaraugus has come to a standstill. Floodwaters ate into the banks of the stream and undercut the area where one of two fuel tanks were being stored.

The rock and debris will have to be removed from the frame where concrete was to have been poured last week. The frame, which was largely destroyed, will then be removed.

It’s unclear whether construction will be able to proceed at the site without more engineering. More work will need to be done to divert the creek around the construction site.

Initially, Burr had hoped the construction wouldn’t be delayed too long and the foundation, three big concrete culverts, a splash pad and plunge pool could be installed this construction season.

He isn’t so sure now.

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)