Federal agency to help Downtown Connector chemical spill investigation

Barely two weeks after the I-85 fire and bridge collapse, metro Atlanta woke up Monday, April 17, 2017 to another traffic nightmare: a chemical spill on the Downtown Connector that blocked both sides of the interstate for hours. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
Barely two weeks after the I-85 fire and bridge collapse, metro Atlanta woke up Monday, April 17, 2017 to another traffic nightmare: a chemical spill on the Downtown Connector that blocked both sides of the interstate for hours. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Duane DeBruyne, deputy director of communications for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said Tuesday his agency will assist state and local law enforcement in the probe of the crash and chemical spill. The tractor-trailer was hauling benzoyl chloride, a compound that can be used in medicines, dyes and resins that can be toxic if inhaled and cause burns to the skin and eyes.

The driver of the big rig, Matthew Bowden, was cited by Atlanta police for driving improperly inside I-285. Big rigs that don’t have business inside the Perimeter aren’t supposed to drive inside I-285.

Related: Monday’s highway mishaps heighten Atlanta’s transportation pain

According to state law, trucks are only allowed to use the Downtown Connector for pick up or delivery to or from a shipper based inside I-285; going to or from the carrier’s terminal inside the Perimeter; going to or from a repair facility; or if a driver is going to or from a residence inside the Perimeter.

“He was inside the Perimeter when he should have been on the Perimeter. He was cutting through,” Captain Mark Wesley, the head of the state Department of Public Safety Motor Carrier Compliance division, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday.

The Downtown Connector was closed in both directions after about 50 gallons of diesel fuel and up to 250 gallons of a toxic chemical spilled on the interstate.

Wesley said Monday he did not know the driver’s planned destination.

Messages left with the Savannah company that owns the truck, Dickey Truck Leasing, which does business as Greatwide American Trans-Freight, have not been returned. Attempts to reach Bowden also haven’t been successful.

DeBrunye said in an email that his agency will support the local and state investigation into the incident. The FMCSA is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The agency’s role, he said, “will be a thorough review of the carrier’s compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. This includes an examination of the carrier operations, the vehicle and the driver compliance with the (federal regulations).”

“The results of this thorough review will be provided to the state/local authorities to help provide as full a picture as possible of all the elements that may — or may not — be factors in the crash,” he said in an email.

A federal agency said Tuesday it will help state and local agencies investigate a chemical spill caused by a tractor-trailer wreck before dawn Monday on the Downtown Connector that snarled traffic for hours. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
A federal agency said Tuesday it will help state and local agencies investigate a chemical spill caused by a tractor-trailer wreck before dawn Monday on the Downtown Connector that snarled traffic for hours. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

The crash and spill was part of a pair of incidents Monday that made a mess of Atlanta's highways. Buckling lanes on I-20 in DeKalb County shut down westbound traffic for hours during the evening commute. Georgia Department of Transportation crews fully opened westbound lanes of I-20 early Tuesday.

The crash between Bowden’s truck and an SUV occurred about 3 a.m. Monday. Bowden attempted to avoid the SUV, which was stopped on the Downtown Connector and then turned into the truck’s path.

The collision caused the semi to overturn and its load of chemicals to spill.

Atlanta authorities said about 250 gallons of benzyol chloride spilled on the freeway.

The crash led to the shutdown of I-75/I-85 in the middle of the city for hours as crews cleaned up the noxious smelling liquid.

Police found the driver of the SUV, Mitchell Epstein, of Memphis, bleeding and disoriented, walking south in the northbound lanes of the Connector. The police report said Epstein was ticketed for having an expired and suspended license. He was also cited for improper stopping in a roadway and an improper lane change.

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