Fire crimps Port project

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BURBANK — A fire at the Port of Walla Walla’s Burbank Industrial Park early Thursday ravaged an essential piece of equipment needed for a sewer pipeline project in the works.

The 1:05 a.m. wind-fanned fire destroyed portions of a “mud machine” on a 40-foot trailer owned by Portland-based Apex Directional Drilling, said Walla Walla Fire District 5 Chief Mike Wickstrom.

Damage to the $250,000 rig has delayed work on the drilling project destined to bring sewer service — and, with it, sought-after commercial development — to the western Walla Walla County community.

Firefighters spent about two hours, dousing the fire with foam and containing an estimated 100 to 200 gallons of diesel fuel that leaked out to within a 10-foot radius around the trailer, which was about 200 feet from the Snake River. Wickstrom said the state Department of Ecology has been notified about the leak.

An official investigation is under way through an insurance provider. However, Wickstrom said it appears wind blew a tarp that had been anchored into the ground into a propane heater set up to keep water from freezing inside hoses on the equipment. The tarp ignited and spread with help from the wind, he said

This particular piece of equipment injects bensonite “mud” into the boring cycle while drilling takes place.

Apex has been working on creating a stable hole through layers of cobbles and sands on its way to the basalt about 200 feet down, said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz. Apex will install steel casing pipes that will run sewage from Burbank under the Snake River into Pasco for treatment through a multi-jurisdictional partnership. The work started around the beginning of December, he said.

Before the fire, Apex was already behind schedule because of trouble with the looser materials. The challenge wasn’t entirely unexpected, Kuntz said. “It was well known these cobbles are there for these first couple hundred feet,” he said.

The basalt portion is expected to go more smoothly. But that was when the equipment was operational. Wickstrom estimated at least a quarter of the equipment was lost in the fire.

Wickstrom said an Apex safety director was on site after the fire. He said with rental equipment available from the company that manufactured the unit for Apex, the delay could be as short as one week.

An attempt to reach Apex project estimator Jason Stephenson on Friday was unsuccessful.

The Port had initially planned to be installing pipe under the river by March or April, Kuntz said

“Quite frankly, we thought the casing pipe installation was going to be a part of the project that would have gone more smoothly,” he said.

Port commissioners established a $2.1 million budget for the transmission line. More than $1.3 million of that figure is for Apex’s portion of the job.

The fire is not expected to have a financial bearing on the Port’s side of the contract, Kuntz said.

The project is an alternative to building a wastewater treatment plant that would need to be staffed and managed. Burbank currently operates on a septic system. Residents will have the option to tie in.

The sewer system, along with a relatively new potable water system and highway improvements, is expected to help build economic development at the Port’s 120-acre spread.

The land is zoned for commercial and light industrial use. The Port envisions a grocery store, bank, dental office, dry cleaner and other service providers as potential tenants to meet the needs of the existing residents of the small community, as well as the scores of people who commute to the area for work at Tyson Fresh Meats, Boise Inc., Railex and Broetje Orchards.

Kuntz said marketing the property to developers is difficult now because officials want to make sure the infrastructure will be there for the sewer treatment.

If the approach under the river proves unsuccessful, the development concept will continue. One option, Kuntz said, would be to abandon sewer and continue with a septic development. Another would be to hang the pipeline under the bridge that connects Pasco and Burbank. The latter would require a lot of permitting, he said.

“It’s a big project,” he said. “We know there’s risks along with it.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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