A tanker truck carrying crude oil plunged off a mountain road Monday, killing the driver and releasing thousands of gallons of crude oil that created an 18-mile fuel slick in streams flowing through some of Ventura County’s most sensitive wildlife habitat.
The truck driver apparently lost control of his rig while on a mountain grade that connects an oil-field service road to California 150, about four miles north of Santa Paula. The twin-tanker truck, returning with an 8,000-gallon load of diesel and light crude, slammed into a ravine within yards of Santa Paula Creek.
Killed instantly in the crash was Patrick J. Hildebrand of Ventura, a 41-year-old driver for R.P. Cummings Inc., according to Dave Allen, general manager of the trucking firm. The company serves 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 where Charles Law, 37, was working on his computer at 7:30 a.m.
“I heard skidding and he was just coming fast down the hill. I thought I heard his horn blowing and just then it 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.”
Crash investigators are examining whether inclement weather, driver error or mechanical failure may have contributed to the accident, 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 collision ruptured one of the truck’s tanks, spilling 4,000 gallons of slightly processed crude into Santa Paula Creek. Joining storm runoff from the Los Padres National Forest, the oil created a bubbling, tea-colored broth that smeared black goo over boulders, sandy shores and willows along the banks. The oil’s stench filled the air for miles and the demolished tractor-trailer truck could not be removed for hours until hazardous materials crews pumped out the remaining fuel.
The swift-moving stream spread the crude faster than emergency response crews anticipated. Downstream in Santa Paula, work crews threw up a series of temporary earthen dams, but the oil snaked around and reached the Santa Clara River, the last free-flowing steam in Southern California and a wildlife magnet.
By nightfall, the slick was headed for an estuary at the Pacific Ocean in Ventura. Crews fear the 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., a firm working to check the spill.
At risk are winter runs of the endangered 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 working Monday to assess the environmental damage. So far, no birds or mammals were reported injured, said Robert Hughes, spokesman for the Oil Spill Prevention and Response unit of the California Department of Fish and Game.
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 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 gallons of light crude and water spilled from a Unocal storage tank into Santa Paula Creek, near the site of Monday’s accident.
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An oil tanker accident at 7:30 am Monday spilled 4,000 gallons of processed crude oil into Santa Paula Creek. The creek flows south into the Santa Clara River.