Credit: Capt. Daniel Bertucelli/SBCFD (file)

When a tanker truck overturned on tortuous State Route 166 in March 2020, 4,600 gallons of crude oil on board spilled into the Cuyama River, a “navigable water of the United States” that ultimately reaches the Pacific Ocean. Enforcement of any penalty associated with the spill fell to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which announced a settlement with the truck owner of $80,000 on February 17.

Amy Miller, the enforcement director for EPA Region IX, said, “The spill resulting from Golden Valley Transfer’s overturned truck was a single discharge event and did not last an extended period of time. EPA was deployed onsite for one day as part of the response effort to contain the spill.”

Other quick containment measures by Santa Barbara County Fire, the EPA, and Caltrans consisted of damming the river in several spots, which kept the oil from reaching downstream stretches of the Cuyama River, including Twitchell Reservoir, which lies between the Cuyama and the Santa Maria rivers. The nearly 200,000-gallon basin at Twitchell provides drinking and irrigation water to the City of Santa Maria and to the aquifer for the city of 106,000 persons.

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Rescuing the oiled wildlife was the job of California Fish & Wildlife, whose crew took a belted kingfisher, three mallards, nine Western pond turtles, six frogs, a toad, and some non-steelhead fish to a wildlife care facility. All but the kingfisher and one mallard made it, according to Fish & Wildlife’s Cal Spill Watch. The event is still under investigation, said F&W spokesperson Eric Laughlin, which will determine if any enforcement action is taken by the agency.

Golden Valley Transfer, a freight-hauling company in Bakersfield, paid for a cleanup by two environmental contractors, and the driver, who was pulling 6,100 gallons of petroleum, was not cited with any criminal charges, said Officer Alex Ruiz of the California Highway Patrol office in Santa Maria.

State Route 166 has come under scrutiny as a potential route for ExxonMobil to move oil by truck from its Las Flores Canyon refinery on the Gaviota Coast. The route, which recorded a flow of about 3,000 vehicles daily in a 2018 study, is an alternative to Line 901, an oil pipe that shut down after it broke and caused the Refugio Oil Spill of 2015 in which more than 142,000 gallons of crude leaked down a ravine, much of it flowing into the Pacific Ocean and blackening the shores and sea life.

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