The driver of a tanker truck carrying liquid asphalt discovered what many weekend motorists in the Bay Area know all too well. Once you get lost and turn off a main road in the Santa Cruz Mountains, things can get dicey pretty quickly.
And, the lesson came at a steep cost. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has imposed a $60,000 penalty on a Sacramento construction company after one of the company’s tanker trucks rolled down a ravine while trying to negotiate a tight turn on a narrow, winding road near Portola Redwoods State Park in San Mateo County last fall. The crash sent roughly 1,000 gallons of asphalt emulsifier, an oily black chemical poured on roads as part of paving projects, flowing into a creek.
The accident happened Sept. 30, 2019 about three miles east of La Honda near the intersection of Alpine Road and Mindego Hill Road. The chemical, called Styraflex, is used to seal roads and driveways.
When it poured out of the top of the wrecked 6,300-gallon tanker, it killed fish and put the creek off limits for three weeks to a rural water system that serves about 80 homes, farmland and a juvenile detention center, EPA officials said. It took cleanup crews with pumps, temporary dams and straw wattles 10 days to remove the mess along 600 feet of the unnamed stream, which feeds into Alpine Creek.
The spill also dumped 100 gallons of diesel fuel.
“There were dead fish and amphibians, like salamanders, and vegetation was covered in oil,” said Jamie Marincola, a supervisor in the enforcement division of the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco.
The 61-year-old truck driver, resident of Roseville near Sacramento, was not a local familiar with the backroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. His problems began when he missed a turn while traveling to a paving job that was being done on nearby mountain roads as part of a contract between San Mateo County and the paving company, VSS International of Sacramento. He tried to find an alternate route by using the GPS function on his cell phone, said Jeff Reed, president of VSS International.
“Once the tanker went up Alpine Road there was no place to turn around,” Reed said. “It’s all hairpin turns. Even pickup trucks have trouble turning around sometimes on those roads. On one of the corners, the back tires slipped.”
Reed said the road should have been clearly marked as off limits for large trucks. But he said the accident could have been avoided.
“The truck should not have been on that road,” Reed said. “That road is not built for truck traffic. He had a prescribed route and he missed a turn. He went to his personal GPS. It was driver error.”
Reed said the driver wasn’t hurt. He said there was one other person in the truck’s cab, which remained on the road, a truck driver trainee who was there to learn how to drive tanker trucks.
Under the settlement, which was signed Dec. 2, the company will pay $60,000 to settle violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
“These are the kinds of things that you have nightmares about,” Reed said. “We supply a lot of the asphalt and asphalt emulsions in California. There’s a lot of transportation. We wish this had never happened.”
The company has been in business since 1919, and works on paving jobs around the American West. In recent years, it has sealed roads Yosemite National Park, along the rim of the Grand Canyon and in the Marin Headlands, along with freeways and local roads.
But last year’s accident is not the first time VSS has run afoul of the EPA. In September, an administrative law judge assessed a $230,958 penalty against the company. In that case, the EPA charged VSS with five violations of federal oil pollution laws, saying that at one of its facilities in Yolo County, it did not have adequate spill prevention plans, inspections or record-keeping for large oil tanks it had on its property near the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel. The company has denied the allegations.
“In handling chemicals, it’s really important that companies manage them in a safe manner,” said Amy Miller, director of the enforcement and compliance division of the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco.