From Roll-over to Remediation – Spills on the run

Crews clean up roadway at tanker roll over in San Diego - HMN

Crews clean up roadway at tanker roll over in San Diego – Photo HMN

HMN – Earlier this month San Diego County had a roll over incident on a busy highway.  According to Fox 5:

Cleanup crews were still working Monday to clean up thousands of gallons of diesel that spilled from a tanker truck into a largebird sanctuary in the San Diego River near Old Town in the west end of Mission Valley.

About 3,700 gallons of fuel spilled into the river, according to Alex Bell, spokeswoman for the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health; but it did not flow into the Pacific Ocean because mitigation booms were put in place at Pacific Coast Highway to prevent further damage.

Full article


Crews use boom to collect diesel spilled into San Diego River - HMN

Crews use boom to collect diesel spilled into San Diego River – copyright HMN

Location, Location, Location – time is not on your side

The roll over occurred during rush hour on a Friday on a roadway adjacent to the San Diego River.  Diesel fuel from the breached tanker quickly found its way to the San Diego River which exacerbated the extent of the damages.  As responders we must always consider ‘the worst case scenario’ and this one had several of those unfortunate variables.  The location of the spill, as far as downrange impact to the environment, could not have been much worse.

In some cases plugging and patching the original container quickly becomes a non-option and as in this case, crews quickly had to come up with plans to minimize the damage of what was already ‘down stream’.   In these spills teams need to quickly assess a plan to minimize the downstream consequences through diking, damming, diverting, and making quick decisions on risk/gain knowing that impact to the environment is happening now, but specialty resources may have long response times.


Diverting to control spill – HMN Photo



Briefing for part of clean up at tanker roll over - HMN Photo

Briefing for part of clean up at tanker roll over – HMN Photo

Bring out the Acronyms : A multi-agency response:

A spill to a waterway, especially of this potential, will get several more agencies involved, but it is your job to call them early!   As a first on scene company officer it is vital to recognize the potential and make the notifications early to get the ball rolling for help from acronyms like USCG, NRC, EPA, DOT.  These agencies are not only experts in their craft but have access to the extra equipment you will need.

You will be hosting a big party so make sure to institute the Unified command system, get a PIO, and plan command post and staging locations accordingly.  It was obvious in the San Diego incident above that all of the agencies had planned for this type of event and had trained together.  This incident, by volume, was small compared to other spills but the coordination of agencies and required tasks to be completed are the same.    A federal on scene coordinator will never complain if you call too early or on too small of a spill – they are ready to help.

Remediation: It’s not over until…

Most of us in our first responder capacity are so honed to our ‘Rescue’ obligation we are used to quick, tough decisions, then roll out the flagging tape and return the scene to the owner quickly, wash hands – repeat.  This kind of spill is different.  At 3,700 gallons this is still a spill which causes major impacts to soil, the river, and the habitat and does not go away quickly.  Teams were established for the river, the excavation, sampling, logistics, etc.  Remediation of the area is a large operation involving the need for many personnel and several pieces of equipment and could last for several weeks.  Remember to thank these acronyms the next time you see them at a training because if you need them, you WILL need them, and they will be there to help.

Our investigation found that seven sections under the bridge needed to be remediated almost to groundwater.   Teams called in an on-site mobile analytical laboratory to handle samples of excavated material to determine how clean they are getting the soil and where to continue.  The river was initially skimmed with a vacuum truck using a skimmer.  Vegetation needed to be removed and swept by  hydrophobic booms.  Massive amounts of soil needed to be removed, tested, and sent to the appropriate place for disposal.  This was, and still is, a big job.

Sample analysis equipment brought in to assist with remediation – HMN photo

Lesson to those of us on the First In

Recognize the potential and get the right resources notified early, they can always be cancelled.   Plan for the worst case and know what resources you have available, or may need to get to your scene.  Just because accidents like to find the worst place and time to happen does not mean you can’t be ready with a workable plan.

On scene at tanker spill - HMN Photo

On scene at tanker spill – HMN Photo


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One comment


    As a member of the NRC Environmental response team. We were on site within 30 minutes of the spill. We deployed booms at three different locations to stop the fuel from spreading out to the bird sanctuary. Most of the fuel drained into the soil under the bridge. We are continuing the remediation process.

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