Diesel spills into Matadero Creek, booms put out to clean up spill

A map showing where the spill occurred. Provided by the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Daily Post Editor

A malfunctioning shut-off valve at a Palo Alto VA generator has resulted in diesel fuel spilling into Matadero Creek near Bol Park, according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Workers have put absorbent booms into the creek to soak up the diesel, and the Fire Department is treating it as a hazardous materials incident.

The discharge occurred around 11 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Thursday (May 6) due to the failure of the emergency shut-off valve for one of the VA’s emergency generators, according to a report by Heather Malanog, a safety specialist with the water district.

Residents didn’t hear about it until Saturday when they got an email from John King, head of the Barron Park Association.

The spill after absorbent materials were thrown in the water. Photo from a report by Heather Malanog, a safety specialist with the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

The news media didn’t learn about the spill at the time because the city has encrypted police radio frequencies. The Post learned of the spill Saturday from residents.

Malanog’s report indicated 200-300 gallons was discharged in the incident, but it’s unknown how much went into the creek.

Residents report discharge

Malanog said the spill was thought to have been contained on VA facility. However, at 2:24 p.m. on Thursday, residents reported to the Palo Alto police and fire dispatch that a discharge was seen in Matadero Creek. Firefighters were told by a dispatcher that the VA was reporting a 75 gallon spill and they should “just make sure the cleanup is OK.” The Fire Department arrived, did a walk-through along the creek and located the area where diesel fuel had entered Matadero Creek.

Malanog said the state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response Unit has taken over control of the incident and has an incident commander on the scene.

A VA spokesman, Michael Hill-Jackson, said in an email to King, the neighborhood association leader: “The impact is contained in a 600-foot section of the creek and there is minimal risk of fuel breaking containment upstream. Most of the spilled diesel fuel was captured inside the VA generator building.”

The VA generator building where the spill occurred. Photo from the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Hill-Jackson said VA employees were able to stop the spill and begin the cleanup.

“Cleanup efforts will continue until the spill is adequately contained and removed from the surrounding environment,” Hill-Jackson said in an email on Friday night.

Diesel found downstream

However, Winter Dellenbach, who lives in the nearby Barron Park neighborhood, did an experiment with her husband last night that suggests the diesel has been spreading downstream. She tied a rope around the top of a jar and lowered it down into the creek near the Bol Park Bike Path bridge.

She reported that she got a full jar, with about a quarter of sediment and three-quarters of murky water. She and her husband took a good sniff and smelled nothing.

They put the cap on and shook it. Then they took off the cap and both smelled a strong odor of fuel “or what the hell it is,” she said. They did it again and got the same result.

Dellenbach said that the experiment shows the spill was not contained by the booms, which are upstream from the bridge, and the fuel has sunk down into the silt of the creek bed.

“This just got more serious,” she said. “What is to be done and who is going to do it?”

Gary Kremen, the Santa Clara Valley Water District board member who represents Palo Alto, pointed out there are penalties for such spills.

“Water pollution is both a serious civil and criminal act. Don’t do it,” he said.

Correction: Fire Department radio frequencies have not been encrypted.

A hiker on the Bol Park Bike Path looks at Materdero Creek today (May 8). To the left are the white booms that were put in the creek to soak up the diesel. Post photo by Dave Price.
The Bol Park donkeys live on the southern side of the creek by the Bol Park Bike Path. Post photo by Dave Price.


  1. Thanks for reporting this. It’s awful that the City is so slow to report these things to residents. We’ve got to end encryption.

  2. This is disgusting that the VA would let this happen. There isn’t much water in the creek right now, so any amount of diesel can be lethal to the habitat. I’m suspicious that the city wanted to let the VA get away with this one, and that’s why they’re not telling the public about it.

  3. I went by the creek this morning and there were no mallard ducks. And nobody was there cleaning up the creek, though I saw the white booms. It didn’t look like they were doing much good as the water was flowing underneath them. I’d like to know how far downstream the diesel spread, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for an answer.

  4. Thank you for this. The city’s delay in informing residents of the danger is unconscionable and absurd, especially given what we’re paying for the “PR” staff,

    We need some accountability from City Hall.

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