Palo Alto residents and environmental advocates warned Monday that last week's diesel fuel spill from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System's Palo Alto campus into Matadero Creek may damage local wildlife and pushed the city to remain deeply involved in the cleanup effort.
The incident occurred Thursday morning, when a sensor at the VA campus' generator plant pump failed and diesel entered a storm drain that flowed into the creek, according to an email that VA spokesperson Michael Hill-Jackson wrote to Barron Park Association President John King. The email noted that most of the fuel was captured inside the VA's generator building, and that there is "minimal risk of fuel breaking containment upstream."
The incident, however, has triggered fresh concerns among residents near the creek. News of the incident didn't become public until Saturday and it remains unclear exactly how much damage the spill has caused. Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, said she was "horrified" to hear about the diesel spill.
"With the drought, water for birds and wildlife is scarce, and this is the height of the nesting and breeding season, where birds and other animals depend on creek water for their life and raising their young," Kleinhaus said.
Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach noted that the creek is habitat for great blue herons, fish, ducks, frogs and plants. On Monday morning, as she surveyed the damage from the spill, Dellenbach said she saw a huge snowy egret at the site.
Her water samples from around the creek suggested the spill may extend well beyond the area where responders had placed absorbent booms to contain the spill, she said.
"It's now in the heart of Bol Park and maybe far beyond," Dellenbach said.
She urged the council to determine the impact of the spill and to remain deeply involved in the cleanup effort.
"The neighborhood, the public, the council, the Parks and Recreation Commission and staff need to get regular updates on this situation starting tonight. … Palo Alto is not a town that takes toxic spills into their creek lightly," Dellenbach said.
Barron Park resident Douglas Moran, who served as the neighborhood's liaison to the state agencies that had dealt with prior spills, noted that the geology of the area is particularly complex because of earthquake faults. In some sections, the creek appears to be dry because the water is going through the gravel bed. Water then reemerges and continues to flow through the creek a short distance later.
"There's sections where the water in the creek goes into groundwater and sections of the creek where it comes out of the groundwater into the creek and flows further down," Moran said.
City Manager Ed Shikada did not address on Monday the extent of the damage, noting that the cleanup effort is being led by the VA's third-party contractor. Other agencies that are included in the cleanup effort include the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the county's District Attorney's Office and Santa Clara Valley Water District.
State fish and wildlife investigators have also taken water samples for analysis, said Eric Laughlin, public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
"It's possible trace amounts of fuel could have gotten past the containment area and created a sheen, but the boom has contained much of it. With the product being a lighter form of fuel (diesel), what's not absorbed by the pads/boom will most likely dissipate under natural conditions including sunshine and currents," he said.
No oiled wildlife has been observed since the discharge began and a responding wildlife officer told Laughlin on Monday night that the cleanup crews have made significant progress since the discharge occurred, he said.
Laughlin said it's unknown exactly how much fuel reached the creek.
"We estimate between 50 to 100 gallons was discharged, so it was some portion of that. The fuel impacted roughly 100 yards of the creek," he said.
Due to the sensitive and shallow nature of the creek, cleanup methods have been limited to absorbent pads and absorbent containment boom, he added.
The incident remains under investigation. It's too early to know if any fines and/or penalties will be assessed, he said.
In her report, Valley Water environmental, health and safety specialist Heather Malanog said she responded to the incident on May 6 after receiving a message on the agency's pollution hotline for Raw Water Operations that the Palo Alto Fire Department had reported the fuel discharge. The VA and its emergency response contractor, Environmental Logistics Inc., conducted the initial cleanup at the site of the generator and checked surrounding storm drains. They estimated at the time that 200 to 300 gallons of diesel had been discharged, but at the time it was thought the contamination was restricted to the VA property.
Local residents reported to Palo Alto emergency dispatchers at about 2:25 p.m. that they had seen a discharge into the creek. Palo Alto fire crews arrived, did a walk-through along the creek and located the area where diesel fuel had entered Matadero Creek. The spill is along a stretch of creek that runs through three private properties, according to the report.
Gary Kremen, who serves on Valley Water's board of directors, said the agency is worried about the spill and its potential impact on plant and animal habitats, particularly during a drought where there is little water in the creek. Photographs of the generator housing don't show any kind of containment structure, which he said should be in place surrounding a facility containing chemicals.
On May 12, Laura Hucheson, spokeswoman for VA Palo Alto, said in an email that the fuel absorbent mats and spill pads in the creek will remain in place as directed by the Palo Alto Fire Department.
The VA's contractor is taking daily water samples. Wednesday's sampling included water from approximately 150 feet downstream of the contained area, which is in accordance with the mitigation plan agreed upon by the Palo Alto Fire Department. She said they expected to have results of the sampling on May 12. As of May 17, the VA had received the test results, which were being reviewed, she said.
"Currently, there is nothing to indicate that the fuel spill has gone further downstream. The VA, in collaboration with the fuel system maintenance contractor, have come up with improvements to mitigate future incidents," she said.
In her Wednesday update, Hucheson said the fuel was released mostly in the building and most of it was recovered. A small amount of fuel was released outside of the building, including the soil around the building, which was absorbed. Fuel on the roof evaporated. An unspecified amount of fuel went into nearby storm drains, some of which was recoverable, she said.
Asked what kind of containment structure the building had to prevent any spills, Hucheson said, "the fuel system is constructed of all double-walled tanks and fuel piping to meet federal and state standards. The inside of the generator floor has a higher level concrete finish to help clean up any fuel spilled inside the building. Around the exterior of the building, smaller storm drain inlets were installed to allow them to be blocked with spill control blankets in the event of a fuel spill."
The VA, is collaborating with its fuel-system maintenance contractor on improvements to mitigate future emergencies, including installing an audible alarm and emergency stop in the control room, Hucheson said.
"In addition there is a current plan to have an emergency storm drain cover fabricated for future testing and any future emergencies. Additionally, the engineering team continues to assess the system to develop a list of system improvements to aid in an emergency response."
Shikada said the Palo Alto Fire Department is investigating what happened and is engaged in the cleanup work and the follow-up monitoring work. Fire Chief Geoffrey Blackshire said Tuesday morning that the city is currently awaiting the results from the sampling of water and soil, which are expected within 24 hours. The sampling map, which will be available once the city gets the results, will reflect the extent of the diesel in the creek, Blackshire said.
He also noted in an email that the city expects to see continued sampling for contamination and to use that information to determine the success of the cleanup effort. Everything that has been contaminated has been transferred off-site, he said.
Shikada said his office has reached out to the offices of Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assembly member Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, to ask for assistance in following up with the various federal and state agencies involved in the cleanup effort.
"I would note, in the mix of federal and state agencies, our city departments, particularly the Fire Department, have been on scene immediately as called and (are) continuing to monitor and provide assistance to ensure that we're doing what we can within the expertise of our city departments, in order to ensure that this — both the incident and follow-up — is handled as best as can be done."