A section of eastbound Interstate 90 near St. Regis remained closed Wednesday night, nearly 24 hours after the trailer of a westbound semi-truck spilled some 56,000 pounds of white talc onto the lanes below and into the St. Regis River.
The driver and lone occupant was uninjured when his truck rounded a troublesome corner near Drexel, seven miles west of St. Regis, shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday and veered left into the jersey barrier.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Sean Finley said after the trailer hit the barrier "the pallets separated through the side of the trailer and ended up in the eastbound lane. When the bags ruptured, it left a substantial film on the roadway. That's why the eastbound lane got shut down."
Talcum powder can be hazardous if inhaled.
“The dust is what you don’t want to breathe. We don’t want to get it airborne,” said Jerry Dockter, chief of the St. Regis Volunteer Fire Department and the incident commander.
Dockter said the truck was coming from Barrets Minerals, Inc., a talc plant south of Dillon, with a shipment destined for Japan.
By midnight Tuesday eastbound traffic from Idaho into Montana had been blocked at the top of Lookout Pass, some 26 miles away. Steve Felix, maintenance chief of the Montana Department of Transportation’s Missoula division, said he expected that section of I-90 to be closed until Thursday.
Pilot cars on Wednesday afternoon began ushering a miles-long string of backed-up semis and other vehicles on a detour over the narrow Camel’s Hump highway into St. Regis. Westbound travel on the interstate was confined to one lane at the crash site.
Excess speed on a corner where the suggested speed is 45 mph was a suspected factor in the crash.
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“In my opinion, he was traveling too fast for the corner,” said Sgt. Shawn Smalley, who investigated for MHP. “That doesn’t mean he was exceeding the speed limit.”
A semi crash on the same curve this summer resulted in spillage of some 8,000 gallons of asphalt, at a cleanup cost of some $250,000 for MDT alone, Felix said. The jersey barrier had to be reconstructed after that incident.
Tuesday's crash occurred a couple of miles below the notorious Schober's Curve, named for the local towing company that responds to a wreck in the section every 25 days on average.
"I've picked up probably 600 semis from (mile marker) 23.5 to 24.5," said Dockter, 61, who began working for Schober's Towing when he was 14. "The state has tried everything they can think of to try to slow people down on this corner. It's just ... they don't get it. The last one that wrecked here, he drove through twice a week."
A cleanup team worked to clear the highway on Wednesday afternoon and notified the Montana Department of Environmental Quality of the extent of the spill.
The talc spilled down the 20-foot slope between lanes, covered both eastbound lanes and poured down into the river at mile marker 26.5, about seven miles west of St. Regis. Rocks along both river banks were covered in white. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks planned to investigate the spill in the river on Thursday.
Dockter said first responders from St. Regis on Tuesday started seeing the plume of powder at Two Mile, some three miles away. He estimated the talc was piled up from 6-8 inches on the highway as vehicle after vehicle passed through it before he notified the transportation department of the need to close the highway.
"I'm just really surprised we didn't have a secondary wreck," Dockter said. "By the time we got here there were cars and trucks still flying through here. It's just that deep powder and it's so fine, it just exploded when a truck would hit it."