A 36-year-old Vineland, N.J., gasoline truck driver has been charged with multiple felonies for allegedly cascading thousands of gallons of fuel onto the grounds of a Brookhaven, Delaware County, elementary school in June, forcing its closure, contaminating a nearby pond and stream, and killing nearby wildlife.
“We have video surveillance for security cameras from nearby businesses that we were able to access that shows him doing all of these things,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said during a news conference Tuesday at the Coebourn Elementary School. “This was an intentional, willful criminal act.”
The driver, George Smith, who was working for Elmer, N.J.-based Lee Transport Systems, was charged with 11 crimes that included risking and causing catastrophe, violating pollution laws, and reckless endangerment. He was arrested and bail was set Tuesday during his arraignment at $50,000. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12. If convicted, Smith could face jail time.
Smith’s attorney, Daniel McGarrigle, said that he was only recently retained and plans his own investigation into the cause of the spill. He noted that his client is still presumed innocent, has cooperated with investigators for weeks, and turned himself in Tuesday morning as required.
Stollsteimer said Smith poured more than 4,000 gallons the night of June 11 down an embankment that connects to school property.
Authorities investigating the spill say that Smith set out that day by filling his truck with 8,500 gallons of gasoline for delivery. However, he deviated from the planned route and went first to the Gas N Go station at Coebourn Boulevard and Edgmont Avenue.
Smith, who had been working for Lee Transport Systems for eight years, arrived at the station shortly after 10 p.m. but discovered the underground storage tanks were already filled.
Authorities said video shows Smith then placing the fuel hose on the ground next to a guardrail at the back of the gas station and letting it run. They say Smith did that because a safety feature on the truck would have made it impossible for him to refill his truck for the next stop if there was gas still inside.
The gasoline ran down a wooded, grassy hill and onto the property of Coebourn Elementary School.
The gasoline not only contaminated the school’s grounds but flowed into a storm drain that emptied into a retention pond at the other end of the school property. The retention pond is designed to overflow into Shepard Run, a tributary of Chester Creek. As a result, dozens of frogs, turtles, fish, and even a fox were killed.
The school had to close, with students going back to all-virtual learning. A kindergarten graduation ceremony had to be moved, as environmental cleanup crews began excavating contaminated areas and cleaning the pond.
Raj Syan, owner of the Gas N Go, told The Inquirer in the days after the spill that his station had closed at 10 p.m. June 11 and no one was on the scene at the time of the delivery so Smith was alone. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection concluded that none of the gas station’s tanks were at fault.
Smith not only pumped the gas onto the ground, authorities allege, but also got some padding material to try to clean the area where he had dumped the gas. He then got back in the truck without alerting anyone.
Stollsteimer said it was too early to tell how much the cleanup will eventually cost. Layers of soil, as well as trees and other vegetation, have been removed and replaced with clean fill. The school’s grounds and air will be monitored for months.
Fred Terpolilli, general manager of Lee Transport Systems, said that Smith has not worked since the incident, adding that
his future with the company is “bleak.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that this was not a routine delivery procedure,” Terpolilli wrote in an email. “As a former transport driver, I can say everything about the delivery at this site by George Smith was wrong.”