Friday, December 7, 2007

Oil spill at Greka facility sees 33,600 gallons spewed into creek


Santa Barbara County Fire and hazardous materials crews kept busy yesterday with three separate incidents at two North County Greka Energy facilities, the largest of which involved 33,600 gallons of crude oil that spilled into a creek, officials said.
The spill comes on the heels of three other incidents at a Greka facility in mid November, which combined, spewed more than 7,000 gallons of oil onto the ground and prompted County Fire officials to temporarily shut the facility down.

But yesterday’s spill is by far the largest local incident in recent memory and is just 25,000 gallons less than the 58,000 gallons of fuel that spilled into the San Francisco Bay last month when the marine freighter, Cosco Busan, collided with the Bay Bridge.
Fire Captain Eli Iskow said yesterday’s spill originated at a Greka oil processing plant at 6084 Palmer Road.
“Oil was actively flowing from the facility into a seasonal creek bed along Palmer Road and had flowed one-half mile downstream,” Iskow said.
He said Greka officials told him the cause of the spill was a faulty pump, which was supposed to recirculate oil back into the ground once a holding container the oil was being pumped into was full. When this pump failed, Iskow said, oil began to overflow onto the ground.
But the pump was only part of the problem. Iskow said an alarm system is supposed to be triggered when the pump fails, but it failed as well.
“It was a pump failure, followed by the alarm failure, so they didn’t know it was happening, they tell us,” Iskow said.
Faulty, aging equipment is the common theme for all of the recent Greka spills.
In the first November incident, authorities discovered the cause was a faulty valve, while the second spill was traced to another equipment malfunction. Fire officials shut down that facility, which is located at 3851 Telephone Road near Santa Maria and is about a half-mile away from the Lake Marie housing tract, for a short time after authorities located a tank that was leaking toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide gas. Iskow said it has since been inspected and reopened.
“Most of the equipment on these oil fields in the North County is very old equipment and it fails because of its age,” Iskow said.
He said the County Fire Department is responsible for much of the regulation of oil facilities and it regularly inspects them to ensure they are safe. But he said the fire department doesn’t monitor the age of the equipment.
Iskow said yesterday’s spill occurred at 7:37 a.m. and was discovered by a passerby who called 911 after seeing the oil flowing in the creek.
The first incident of the morning however, occurred at 7:17 a.m. when a witness reported seeing a large white cloud of smoke above a Greka facility on Zaca Station Road.
Iskow said the cloud was caused by a gas leak at the facility. He said Greka officials told him there was no toxic gas released.
Along with the 33,600 gallons of spilled oil, which amounts to roughly 800 barrels, Iskow said an unknown amount of processed water, which is a byproduct of drilling for oil, was also released.
The third incident of the day, which Iskow said occurred while haz-mat crews were on the scene, came when another piece of equipment failed and more processed water spilled.
Iskow said Greka is fined for these mishaps, but the energy company often fights the fines in court. He said the county is currently in litigation with Greka over previous fines.
When asked how much money Greka would be fined for yesterday’s spill, Iskow said the county fire marshal would know, but wouldn’t be available for comment until Monday.
For now, Iskow said the facility would be shut down until it can pass a county inspection.
“County Fire has issued a stop-work order for this facility and on Monday will provide a list of specific conditions that must be met before normal operations can resume,” he said. “Some of those conditions will include electrical, alarm system and processed water piping repairs, along with other safety improvements.”
Because the spill impacted a creek, which Iskow said flows to the Sisquoc River, which then flows to the Santa Maria River before entering the ocean; the cleanup and investigation will include state Fish and Game officials.
Several attempts to reach Greka officials for comment over the past month have not been successful and messages left by the Daily Sound have not been returned.

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