A runaway tanker truck, laden with crude oil, plunged off a mountain road above Santa Paula on Monday, killing the driver and unleashing an 18-mile fuel slick that swift-flowing streams carried into some of Ventura County’s most sensitive wildlife habitat before reaching the Pacific.
The accident occurred about 7:30 a.m. along a mountainous grade that connects an oil-field service road to Highway 150, four miles north of town. The twin-tanker truck, carrying an 8,000-gallon load of diesel and light crude, lost control and slammed into a ravine near Steckel Park and within yards of Santa Paula Creek.
Patrick J. Hildebrand, 41, of Ventura was killed instantly, authorities said. He was a driver for R.P. Cummings Inc., a trucking firm based in Westlake Village. The company’s dozen tanker-trailer trucks serve scores of small oil fields along the Central Coast, destinations Hildebrand had visited many times in his 12-year career as a driver, co-workers said.
The truck came to rest beside a house in rugged Anlauf Canyon, where Charles Law, 37, was working on his computer. He heard it coming, but could not do anything to help.
“I heard skidding, and he was just coming fast down the hill. I thought I heard his horn blowing and, just then, [the tanker] crashed into my yard,” Law said. “I can still hear it in my head. I saw the wreck and called to see if anyone was there, but there was no response, so I called 911. When I smelled all the fuel, I just got out of there as quickly as I could.”
The collision ruptured one of the truck’s tanks, spilling 4,000 gallons of slightly processed crude into the creek. Joining storm runoff from the Los Padres National Forest, the free-flowing oil created a bubbling, tea-colored broth that smeared black goo over boulders, sandy shores and willows along the banks.
The stench of hydrocarbons filled the air for miles and the demolished tractor-truck could not be removed for hours until hazardous-materials crews pumped out the remaining fuel and decontaminated it.
For the environment, the timing could hardly have been worse.
The swift stream spread crude farther and faster than emergency response crews anticipated. They were unsuccessful in halting the contamination before it reached the Santa Clara River, the last free-flowing steam in Southern California and a wildlife magnet.
While certain wildlife, including the endangered steelhead trout, may suffer as a result of the accident, the spilled crude is not expected to foul drinking water supplies.
Jim Kentosh, manager of operations for United Water Conservation District, said his company would discontinue diverting Santa Clara River water into its ground-water recharging fields until it was safe again. United supplies drinking water to Oxnard, Port Hueneme, the county’s two naval bases and small water companies on the Oxnard Plain.
Downstream in Santa Paula, work crews quickly built a series of temporary dams, but the oil snaked around and headed for the river. By nightfall, the slick was headed for an estuary at the Pacific. And construction crews fear rain forecast for today could overwhelm the earthen dikes erected to halt the spread of oil.
“We’re definitely in a race against the weather,” said Kenn Hallquist, safety engineer for Virginia-based Ogden Constructors Inc., which was pressed into service to check the spill.
At particular risk are winter runs of the southern steelhead trout, which migrate from the ocean after winter storms to spawn in tributaries of the Santa Clara River. Environmentalists and state and federal wildlife officials have made Ventura and Santa Barbara counties the focus of efforts to restore the fish, which was declared endangered in 1997.
“It’s a super tragedy all the way around,” said Ron Bottorff, chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. “Right now, with all these rains going on and the steelhead migrating up the river, it’s just a real bad time to have the spill. It does point out the need for a fast response operation.”
Among the other threatened or endangered species endemic to the wooded river bottoms in the area are arroyo toads, least Bell’s vireos and willow flycatchers. State and federal wildlife authorities were scrambling throughout the day to assess the environmental effects, although no birds or mammals were reported injured, said Robert Hughes, spokesman for the Oil Spill Prevention and Response unit of the state Department of Fish and Game.
“We know that it’s historic steelhead habitat. It’s never a great thing to have oil running through streams. It’s toxic to most organisms, and we’re concerned about it,” said Jim Lecky, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach.
In the months ahead, Lecky said cleanup crews will work to remove residual oil in the waterways so adverse environmental effects don’t linger for years.
Meanwhile, accident investigators began to sift through the crash site late Monday, searching for clues to the cause of the fatal wreck.
Dave Allen, general manager for R.P. Cummings Inc., said the company’s truck was in good working order and he doubted mechanical failure played a role. Brakes on all the axles of the truck were replaced on Jan. 21, and the so-called Jake brake, which uses gears to slow the truck, was recently inspected, too.
“We know it was in tip-top shape,” Allen said.
Investigators were also examining whether inclement weather may have played a role in the crash, although no firm conclusions could be made, said Dave Webb, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.
“There’s snow on the mountains, and that’s probably a good indication that the roads were probably a little bit slick,” Webb said.
The policy of the trucking company prohibits drivers from making oil-field service runs during foggy conditions or when roads are wet or icy, Allen said.
In recent weeks, adverse weather has prevented the trucks from reaching the oil field above Santa Paula, which are operated under a lease by Vintage Petroleum Inc. Allen said that, on occasion, officials at Vintage have urged drivers to make the drive up the steep canyon during breaks between storms.
“The drivers know not to go up there if it’s foggy, icy or wet, but it’s a judgment call by the driver,” Allen said.
Vintage Petroleum Vice President Bob Cox would not comment on the suggestion that his company pressured Cummings drivers to transport oil in adverse weather conditions. Vintage operates in 13 states.
Small oil spills from leaky tanks and pipes are common in Ventura County, where oil was first discovered in California near Ojai more than a century ago. Although oil fields in use for decades are nearly pumped out, production continues throughout back-country hills and coastal canyons.
Monday’s spill, however, was the largest in recent memory, said Doug Beach, hazardous-materials supervisor for the Ventura County Environmental Health Division.
In 1994, the Northridge earthquake caused a spill near Piru of about 200,000 gallons of Arco oil that flowed into Santa Clara River. Two months later, 30,000 of light crude and water spilled from a Unocal storage tank into Santa Paula Creek, near the site of Monday’s accident.
Polakovic is a Times staff writer. Lystra is a Times Community News reporter.
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An oil tanker accident at 7:30 a.m. Monday spilled 4,000 gallons of slightly processed crude oil into Santa Paula Creek, which flows south into the Santa Clara River