Burt: How far did the diesel spill spread?

The VA diesel spill after absorbent pads were thrown in the Matadero Creek. Photo from a report by Heather Malanog, a safety specialist with the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Vice Mayor Pat Burt said yesterday he wants to know how far a diesel spill at the Palo Alto VA traveled downstream in Matadero Creek.

The spill occurred between 11 and 11:30 a.m. Thursday when a shut-off valve on a VA generator failed, according to a report from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The VA said about 200 to 300 gallons came out of the generator, but some of that was captured in the building.

When the Palo Alto Fire Department was called at 2:24 p.m., firefighters were told that 75 gallons had spilled. A dispatcher told the firefighters “just make sure the cleanup is OK.”

It wasn’t known yesterday why the VA waited three hours to call the Fire Department.

Workers put absorbent pads into the creek to soak up the diesel, followed by long horizontal booms.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response Unit took charge of the scene on Thursday afternoon and a contractor was brought in to clean up the creek.

“I’m concerned that we don’t yet know how far down the stream it went,” Burt told the Post. “We have no way of knowing. We, at this point in time, have to take it at face value that the VA knows how much it was,” Burt said.

But Burt said he is concerned there wasn’t a “double containment,” or effort to put more booms farther downstream. He also said he wants to see a full plan for how the city and state will be containing the spill.

Gary Kremen, who represents Palo Alto on the water district board, told the Post that he suspects the spill could have been bigger than the 200 to 300 gallons the VA said was discharged.

“We’re not sure we’re getting the whole story yet,” Kremen said.

Kremen said he has heard from residents that they don’t think the diesel has been cleaned up entirely. And he said the water district may soon send its own investigators to see what was left behind.

He added that if there is residual fuel that remains in the water, it could harm birds and other wildlife that use the stream.

Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, phoned into last night’s council meeting to tell city leaders that she was “horrified” to hear about the spill because right now is the height of the nesting season for birds and breeding season for other wildlife. She said these animals were already having a tough enough time because of the drought.

“Traces of diesel may linger and harm aquatic and riparian species for a very long time,” Kleinhaus said.

Noting that these sorts of spills take a long time to investigate, she added “too often offenders get a slap on the wrist.”

Kleinhaus asked that the city stay informed on the investigations in this spill and make sure someone is fined for it.

Similarly, resident Winter Dellenbach, who lives in the nearby Barron Park neighborhood, told council “a toxic spill into a waterway is serious wherever it happens.”

Dellenbach tested the waters herself for fuel by dropping a jar tied to a rope into the stream and bringing it back up to inspect. What she got back from the jar test was a distinct smell of fuel, first on Sunday night and again today at least 500 yards from where the booms upstream were supposedly containing the spill.

“Palo Alto is not a town which takes toxic spills into its creek lightly,” Dellenbach said.

Dellenbach told council the spill could have been breaking news sooner if the city wasn’t encrypting police radios. Residents, instead of hearing about it from the media on Thursday, were told about the spill in an email on Friday night from John King, head of the Barron Park Association.

Burt said he is concerned about the police department deciding to encrypt its police radios, but he said he isn’t sure this lack of communications was due to encryption.

“I think this kind of information should have been immediately available to the public, whether it’s from a scanner or from the fire or police department immediately communicating it to the press and immediately communicating it to the residents in the neighborhood through various forms of communication that we have,” Burt said.

It was unknown yesterday why the city didn’t inform residents about the spill. A city spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email with that question.

City Manager Ed Shikada told council last night that he contacted Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Marc Berman about the spill to find out what kind of help the state and federal government can provide. Shikada said the city found out about the spill from the VA three hours after it happened. He said the Fire Department, the state and the feds will be involved in the investigation and cleanup.


  1. Thanks for your continued reporting on this, and for Vice Mayor Burt’s interest. one correction – I heard of the spill from the VA on Saturday not Friday.

    What is surprising and disheartening is the City didn’t do its own check for contamination downstream and into Bol Park given how fast and easy it was to confirm – smell the water and sediment.

    Now what is the clean-up and restoration plan? How is diesel fuel removed from sediment? How long will the fuel remain? What effect on plant and wildlife? With each passing day some aspects may be harder to investigate and remediate.

    Overlapping agencies may have responsibilities, but Bol is a City park and the City must get more actively involved.

    Not telling anyone that a toxic spill had taken place is unacceptable. Communication with the public and Council by the City must be ongoing and specific.

  2. ” Shikada said the city found out about the spill from the VA three hours after it happened.”

    If the city found out about the spill within hours, why did they wait so long to tell people about it and why did our $500,000+ PR / Communications staff do nothing to get the word out?

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