Two injured as Airport Mobil fuel tank is removed

Edgartown fire is investigating incident; airport commission had raised safety concerns.

Crews working on removing a pipe from this fuel tank were injured Friday at the former site of Airport Mobil. - Stacey Rupolo

Two people suffered minor injuries Friday afternoon as crews attempted to remove a pipe from a fuel tank at the former Airport Mobil so it could be transported on Island roads, Edgartown Fire Chief Peter Shemeth said.

“I wouldn’t call it an explosion,” Chief Shemeth said. “It may have been a release of vapors from the tank.”

When fire crews arrived, the tank was smoking, Chief Shemeth said. Workers were apparently attempting to remove a pipe from the fuel tank using a steel cutting saw when the incident occurred, he said.

A worker at the scene told a Times reporter it was a “leak” from the tank that caused the incident.

Chief Shemeth said he is awaiting a report from the demolition company before determining a cause. He said two people were taken to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in a private vehicle. Their injuries were considered minor, he said, though he had not heard anything official.

The incident came as the former leaseholder, Michael Rotondo, has been clearing the site of buildings and equipment, and unearthing the fuel tanks from the site, ahead of Monday’s eviction deadline. Earlier this month, an Edgartown District Court judge ruled that Mr. Rotondo had to vacate the site by the end of the month.

Instead of making a deal with the new leaseholder, Depot Corner, which offered $250,000 for the equipment and buildings, Mr. Rotondo decided to hire crews to remove the pumps, the store, and the car wash, and to exhume the fuel tanks, at a cost of more than $100,000. Mr. Rotondo told The Times recently that he couldn’t hold his head up if he had taken the money from Depot Corner for the buildings and equipment.

It’s an example of just how bitter this transfer of the lease property is, as are photos obtained by The Times that show signs posted on the site — one blaming the airport commission for the station closing and the other with a vulgarity aimed at a specific airport commissioner.

Mr. Rotondo has donated the fuel tanks to the Edgartown Fire Department to be used as a water source on Chappaquiddick for fire suppression.

The crews were preparing the remaining tank for the move Friday, Chief Shemeth said.

As of Saturday that tank remained on the scene, and crews were back at the site working, according to a Times reporter who went to the site.

The Times received through a public records request an email sent to Mr. Rotondo’s attorney from the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, expressing concern about safety at the site, including concerns about the odor of gasoline. The email, written by the commission’s attorney David Mackey, and sent one day before the incident, expressed concerns raised by the commission’s onsite inspector, Kaitlyne Cullinane.

“Ms. Cullinane did not observe cleaning of the 12,000-gallon gasoline underground tank, freeing of vapors, or testing for a flammable atmosphere prior to removal, and it is believed that some residual gasoline remained in the tank while it was being removed,” Mr. Mackey wrote. “Also, a strong gasoline odor existed in the tank area during the removal process.”

Because the commission felt she was endangered by the work, Ms. Cullinane was told to discontinue her onsite observations, according to the email. The email also raised issues with possible soil contamination, and vowed to seek damages if any hazardous materials were detected.

In a response, Michael Mahoney, Mr. Rotondo’s attorney, wrote that he had been to the site on his way to court and did not find any safety issues.

“I observed absolutely no odors of any petroleum products at or near the excavation,” he wrote. “I also understand that soil samples have been collected. They will be sent [to a] laboratory for analysis, and the results will be included in the environmental assessment that my client will provide to the [airport commission].”

Commissioners responded to Friday’s incident through their attorney, Mr. Mackey. “The commission’s first thoughts are with the workers brought to the hospital after the incident and hope that they make a full recovery,” Mr. Mackey said. “With regard to what happened, the commissioners were sufficiently concerned about apparent disregard for safety at the gas station site that they put it in writing to Airport Fuel one day before the incident occurred.”

Mr. Rotondo could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Mr. Mahoney, said he knew little about the incident. He said it had nothing to do with trying to get the project done quickly. “Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s a construction site.”

Mr. Rotondo is looking forward to getting the project done, he said. “All we want to do is get the leaseholder’s improvements off the site and move that last tank over to Chappaquiddick to benefit the Island,” he said.

Earlier in the day Friday, crews were busy grading the lot. Only the portico and the massive fuel tank remained on the site.

Even asphalt from the parking lot had been ripped up and piled into the back of an 18-wheeler, to be hauled away. Every improvement made by Mr. Rotondo 20 years ago when he initially won the lease in the Airport Industrial Park has been demolished.

In the back-and-forth legal tussle between Mr. Rotondo and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, he has been ordered to vacate the premises as of July 31.

An attempt in Dukes County Superior Court by the commission to freeze Mr. Rotondo’s assets failed, attorney Mahoney told The Times Friday. “They lost that one,” he said.

Meanwhile, a motion for clarification of the eviction notice was filed Thursday, Liza Williamson, clerk magistrate at Edgartown District Court, said. Details of the motion were unavailable because it is in the hands of the judge, she said.

The court battle began in late March after Mr. Rotondo filed suit after losing out on a 20-year lease for the gas station. He was outbid by Depot Corner by nearly $400,000 over the life of the 20-year lease.

Mr. Rotondo sought an injunction against the commission issuing the lease to Depot Corner, citing what he called a faulty bid process, but a judge declined to issue an injunction, saying that Mr. Rotondo had not met the burden of showing he would prevail in his suit against the commission.

Despite that, Mr. Mahoney said his client intends to continue with his lawsuit against the airport commission. That lawsuit remains active at Superior Court.

“There will be a lot of discovery in that case,” Mr. Mahoney said. “That’s going forward.”