Diesel pools in a ditch after a fuel tank overturned on Highway 101, near a salmon and steelhead stream, on February 23.

Fuel Truck Spill Cleaned Up But Hatchery Damage Unknown

Richard Walker
3/7/11

No sooner had the Hoh started seeing benefits from their 2.5-mile extension of the Chalaat Creek salmon run than a tractor-trailer took a tumble and dumped 4,300 gallons of diesel fuel upstream from the tribe’s hatchery in Hoh, Washington.

Though most of the diesel was cleaned up within five days of the February 23 spill, the monitoring and hoping continue.

“This is the first main tributary to the Hoh River that fish encounter coming in from the ocean,” Hoh Tribe habitat biologist Steve Allison told the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission News in January 2010. “These kinds of streams are historically significant coho producers…. We’ve had as many as 1,000 coho smolts migrating out of Chalaat Creek in the recent past.”

Using a $218,000 Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund grant, the Hoh Tribe had completed fish passage improvements on Chalaat Creek in fall 2009. The work gave adult and juvenile coho salmon access to its upper reaches for the first time in decades. The tribe replaced an impassable culvert with a bridge and created a 330-foot section of stream channel to allow fish access to a pond and about 2.5 miles of additional habitat upstream. The two-acre natural pond provides over-wintering habitat for young fish. The stream above the pond is for spawning and rearing.

A full-court press ensued to save the creek and minimize environmental damage to surrounding wetlands when a fuel truck overturned on a snowy stretch of Highway 101, about 2.5 miles upstream from the hatchery, dumping the diesel directly into a ditch near Chalaat Creek. Cleanup was quick, but water quality continues to be monitored.

“Time will tell,” Hoh Chairwoman Maria Lopez said of the spill’s impact on the creek and the life it supports. “I’m concerned about the wild fish—the steelhead and salmon—in the creek. There’s a lot of wild fish that come through there.”

Hoh and Quileute spill-response crews arrived on the scene at the time, as did officials from the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pettit Oil Co., owner of the fuel truck, hired Cowlitz Clean Sweep to help mop up the spilled fuel and protect the creek from further damage. State Patrol and state Department of Transportation officials were also on hand.

By the time responders arrived, though, diesel fuel had flowed under the highway, into the creek and a wetland. It is not known how much fuel made its way downstream and what the environmental impact will be.

Diesel fuel from the damaged truck was pumped to another Pettit tanker truck, and the damaged truck was removed from the ditch. Responders used a containment boom, absorbent pads and a vacuum to collect the oozing diesel. Workers blocked the ditch with dirt, gravel and hay bales to keep more fuel from escaping. Contaminated soil was removed and backfilled.

Lopez is still meeting three times a week with officials from the EPA, the state Department of Ecology, Pettit and Aspect, an environmental consulting firm analyzing soil samples to determine how deep and wide the fuel may have infiltrated the soil.

Samples are being collected from three spots in Chalaat Creek to monitor water quality and check for diesel. By February 28, samples taken twice daily at two locations on the creek had not detected any fuel.

That’s not a fail-safe, though. Even though diesel may not be visible, traces can still be toxic to aquatic life. A carbon filtration system was installed on the hatchery intake and is on standby so that the hatchery can use water from the Hoh River or another creek if that becomes necessary.

Lopez said she hopes more rain will come and push stray diesel to the surface so it can be removed. (The nearby city of Forks gets between 10 and 15 inches of rain in March; 22 inches were recorded in March 2007 and 24 inches in March 2003.)

Lopez said Pettit has been cooperative in the effort to stem any environmental damage caused by the spill. But Pettit has a history of violations and could still be fined, forced to pay for environmental damage and be ordered to reimburse tribal and state governments for their share of the cleanup costs.

The state Department of Ecology fined Pettit $7,000 for a June 2007 crash that caused about 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline to spill and ignite along Highway 8 near the Grays Harbor/Thurston county border. The burning fuel passed through a culvert and ignited a peat bog and a wetland. Some of it also escaped into a creek. As part of its penalty, Pettit restored about 1,400 feet of stream bed and riparian area.

Pettit was fined $20,000 by the EPA and $6,000 by the state ecology department for a July 2000 crash that spilled 1,700 gallons of gasoline along Highway 101 between Naselle and South Bend. As much as 1,500 gallons of the gas went into the salty marshlands of Jorgenson Slough on the south fork of the Nemah River. Pettit’s driver lost control of his vehicle and overturned; Pettit blamed the incident on a maintenance problem with the truck's suspension.

Also in July 2000, Pettit Oil was fined $1,500 for delivering petroleum product to an unpermitted, untagged underground storage tank. In 1996, it was fined for overfilling a tank at the company's facility in Hoquiam.

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