After six weeks of dry weather, the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) painted the yellow centerline on Main Street/Hwy. 23 on Oct. 4 with disastrous results. Yellow paint splashed up on vehicles, including 400 Corvettes in town for the weekend, was tracked into shops downtown, and turned Leatherwood Creek yellow.
“The painting subcontractor did not make a wise choice in painting with rain being forecasted,” Mayor Butch Berry said. “This is a state highway project and I hope that they have learned to pay attention to the weather forecast and not allow paint work to be done if rain is in the forecast. In my memory, this is the first time that this has happened, at least in Eureka Springs.”
Berry said the city received numerous calls about the centerline painting. He was concerned not only about damage to vehicles, but the paint runoff into Leatherwood Creek, “which, as you know, runs into Table Rock Lake and could be a major environmental hazard.”
Joe Sartini, state maintenance engineer for ARDOT, said they checked the weather forecast before they started striping.
“When the road was striped at 7:45 a.m., the forecast was for a twenty percent of rain,” Sartini said. “There didn’t appear to be an immediate issue with weather. The materials we use normally dry in three to four minutes. I wish I could tell you exactly what happened. The pavement must have been sweating. Why it didn’t cure by 2 p.m. when it began raining is really beyond me. It’s unusual. It doesn’t happen very often. I can’t think of any place it has happened before. We don’t ever set out to intentionally do anything like this. We pride ourselves in the work. Anytime something like this happens, we do a thorough root cause analysis to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sartini said the paint was waterborne and not toxic.
“When the rain started, it washed the paint across the road, but it is not a hazardous material,” Sartini said.
Steve Lawrence, the ARDOT District 9 engineer based in Harrison, said their response to the problem was to post highway personnel there to warn motorists about it.
“That is about all we could do,” Lawrence said. “It is a water-based paint. I’ve been told it’s not toxic. We talked about the possibility of going and trying to wash it off the pavement. I was just concerned that would make it a bigger mess. I felt like posting personnel there to warn motorists was best we could do with the situation we had. From what I heard, it worked. I haven’t heard of any more problems after then. That was 4:30 p.m. and a lot of issues had already occurred. I’ve had paint get on my vehicle and I didn’t like it either. It wasn’t our intention and we hate that it happened. But it happened, no doubt.”
Lawrence said they take pride in their work, and know that the city and visitors were very unhappy.
“But our guys didn’t wake up in the morning intending to do anything bad,” Lawrence said.
In an email to the mayor, Lawrence apologized. “We are investigating the circumstances that occurred when this work was done and will do our best to make sure it does not happen again,” he wrote.
Was it a bad batch of paint? Lawrence said they are going to look into that and other possible causes of the problem.
Nancy Ferrell, a chemical engineer who lives in Eureka Springs, tried to get the highway department to respond and vacuum up the paint or take other measures such as using an absorbent material like those used in oil spills to mop up the paint. Those pleas were ignored.
Ferrell said the response was inadequate from an environmental standpoint.
“Water-based does not equal non-toxic, not at all,” Ferrell said. “That just means that water will dissolve with it. It just means it doesn’t have petroleum solvents. You have to take paint to the household recycle center instead of putting it in the trash. Paint is toxic. Yellow paint has chromium. Paints have heavy metals. That’s why proper use is required.”
Ferrell said it appears the state applied paint improperly and it ended up in state waters.
“If I did that as a business, I’d be in jail,” Ferrell said. “If I did it as a consumer, I’d get a ticket. The response wasn’t adequate. They didn’t even try to prevent it from going straight into Leatherwood. As soon as they saw it happen, there should have been a vacuum truck to suck it up and haul it to an approved place and not let it go into water. There are also absorbent materials they could have put down to mop it up. Four hours later I still saw the yellow running down the street. I’m just so disappointed no one was doing anything about it.”
Ferrell said the contractors putting down the paint should have had a Material Data Safety Sheet containing information on the properties and potential hazards of the material, how to use it safely, and what to do if there is an emergency.
“Did they have a MSDS for the paint and did they do what it said?” Ferrell asked.
Anyone with damages from the paint can file a claim with the State Claims Commission at arclaimscommission.arkansas.gov/index or call the claims division of ARDOT at (501) 682-1619.