Tanker Spills over 4,000 Gallons of Crude Oil into Cuyama River

Tanker Truck Crashes off State Route 166 near Twitchell Reservoir

A tanker truck went off SR 166 on March 21, 2020, spilling 4,500 gallons of crude into the Cuyama River. | Credit: Capt. Daniel Bertucelli/SBCFD

About 4,500 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Cuyama River above Twitchell Reservoir, the main source of water for Santa Maria, after a tanker truck rumbled off State Route 166 and tumbled down a riverbank the morning of March 21. A containment boom and earth dams constructed 2.1 miles downstream prevented the oil from reaching the reservoir.

A floating barrier boom was put in place by Santa Barbara County Fire as quickly as it could be brought to the scene after the 6 a.m. call came in, said Eric Laughlin of California Fish and Wildlife. Caltrans and contractors worked through the night to build a gravel road to the site ahead of pending rains, constructing three underflow dams across the river to further contain the oil. The road also gave access to a vacuum truck that sucked the oil off the surface of the containment ponds. In all, 79 responders were first on the scene.

Work continues to remove contaminated water and dirt from the truck spill, said Laughlin. Rocks covered in the heavy crude were being cleaned. A team remained onsite, and drone flights were checking the river for any oil downstream.

Laughlin reported a Western pond turtle and a belted kingfisher had been oiled by the spill and were taken to the Pacific Wildlife Care Center. They were alive as of Monday. A duck that was too oiled to identify was found recently and was also taken to the rehab center; it, too, was so far still alive.

The incident that caused the oil spill is under investigation by the Santa Maria office of the California Highway Patrol, which found about 1,500 gallons of crude still in the truck’s tank. It was a single-vehicle accident, said CHP Officer Alex Ruiz, and the driver was uninjured. The preliminary cause is thought to be excessive speed for road conditions. 

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