An 18-wheeler carrying sulfuric acid crashed Tuesday on Interstate 10, shutting down westbound lanes of the highway for hours. The truck had to be offloaded because its load had shifted in the wreck.
An acid spill along westbound Interstate 10 added to commuting woes Tuesday, leaving early afternoon travelers scrambling for detours and emergency officials to clean up yet another crash, part of a slight uptick in hazardous road incidents this year.
Only about a gallon of the acid spilled onto the highway, but the load shifted in the truck and had to be off-loaded by a hazardous materials crew, Perez said.
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Traffic most of the day was backed up along I-10 westbound, with delays reaching the Shepherd Drive area. Loop 610 north and south of I-10 and eastbound U.S. 290 also were slowed, already strained from holiday shopping trips into the Uptown area. By early afternoon, commuters were bracing for a bad trip home, or staying put waiting for the lanes to reopen – taking to social media to warn others to avoid the area.
Worsening evening traffic, a truck lost its load on eastbound I-10 at Houston Avenue, about 4 p.m. So when two westbound lanes reopened around the acid spill around 5:20 p.m., the opposite side of the freeway was a parking lot.
Hazardous material incidents in the Houston region are on the rise, according to statistics compiled by Houston TranStar. Thus far, TranStar has logged 111 hazmat incidents involving heavy trucks in 2017, as of Tuesday. That is six more than in 2015, the previous high. This year also is on pace to top 2015 for the most heavy truck crashes along roadways, with 1,031 with December left. That is five short of the 1,036 in all of 2015.
Since 2013, the number of hazardous spills and cleanups from trucks has more than doubled, though the spills are a miniscule fraction of the nearly 50,000 incidents on Houston area highways and major roads annually.
Officials still are assessing whether the increase is significant or just a minor anomaly resulting from more vehicles on area roadways.
“They are up some, but I do not see any significant trends,” said David Fink, program manager for incident management for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “It is still in that average and margin for error.”
Fink said, as with any major crash, officials will look at what can be learned as they tackle how to respond and reopen freeways.
Major truck incidents can have devastating consequences on mobility, especially during the work week. A high-profile incident in July led to the nine-hour ramp closure between Loop 610 and Texas 225 – both popular heavy truck routes – that was only a minor matter for traffic because it happened on a Sunday.
Another the morning of Wednesday, May 3, along Interstate 45 backed up traffic for 90 minutes, but during the critical morning commute. As a result, commuters were stuck in miles of congestion.
A fiery, fatal truck crash along U.S. 290 on Feb. 13 took more than 16 hours to clear as crews had to contend with spilled fuel, a displaced pipe the truck was hauling and the charred wreckage of the vehicle.
Compared to previous years, 2017 also is on pace for hazardous incidents to take longer to clear, according to TranStar data. In the past three years, the average time it took crews to clear major truck crashes has drifted from 106 minutes in 2015, then down to 98 minutes in 2016, before shooting up to more than 116 minutes this year.
Again, Fink said a small sample size could be making the problem seem more serious than it really is.
“One large accident like this taking so long moves the number,” he said.
The location of major crashes also can play a factor, he said. Within the city of Houston, which has a much larger fire department and, therefore, more resources, crashes sometimes clear more quickly, Fink said.
Recently, officials’ efforts to keep freeway lanes open have focused on clearing common, everyday crashes. The Houston-Galveston Area Council uses some of the region’s air quality money to pay for some costs associated with incident management, such as Harris County’s Motorist Assistance Program that puts deputies on freeways to better help stranded motorists or clear crash scenes faster.
The program, which operates 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday, handled 47,445 incidents last year, an increase of 56 percent over 2015 – partially as a result of increased investment and expansion of the program.
Fink said once commuter-centered programs are completed, officials could delve into other initiatives aimed at clearing major trucks crashes faster, though no immediate solutions are under consideration. Some ideas could come from what emergency crews discover as incidents increase slightly, he said.