Questions for Caltrans

Why did so many things go wrong following the creek spill?

It’s impossible to know just how much hydraulic oil spilled into Big Chico Creek Sept. 27 as a result of an equipment malfunction at the Caltrans work site at Highway 99. As the CN&R’s Christine G.K. LaPado reported last week (“What happened on the creek?” Newslines), Caltrans initially called it “a small amount,” whatever that means, and John P. Quiggle, the project manager for Viking Construction Co., which owns the malfunctioning excavator, said it was “hard to call. We were guessing it was about a gallon.”

“That’s a joke,” said Anna Marie Cooper, the first recorded witness of the spill.

One reason Quiggle may have found the amount “hard to call” is because, soon after the accident, he had all the remaining hydraulic fluid in the machine removed and replaced with bio-hydraulic oil. Which raises two questions: Why didn’t Viking measure how much of the original fluid was missing, and why wasn’t Viking using biodegradable oil in the first place?

It’s even more important to ask why there were such discrepancies on when the spill happened. Cooper was walking in the park when she saw a “rainbow sheen” of oil floating on Sycamore Pool. She reported the spill to city offices before 9:30 a.m. A clerk in the Finance Office, Betty Brown, took Cooper’s message. Brown says she made three calls to the General Services Department, getting voicemail each time, and finally left the message on the third call. Apparently nobody responded to it.

For his part, Quiggle placed the time of the accident at “about 3:30 p.m.,” a full six hours later, and city Park and Natural Resources Manager Dan Efseaff said he didn’t learn about it until after 4 p.m.

And why wasn’t protocol followed? Efseaff told LaPado that, in order “to activate the [response] system,” Caltrans should have called the Chico Fire Department first, then the city’s General Services Department, then the California Emergency Management Agency. Instead Caltrans called out a hazmat team from the Chico unit of Seattle-based NRC Environmental Services.

And, finally, why didn’t Viking have oil-absorbent booms on site to handle a spill like this one? As Quiggle admitted, “We weren’t equipped for having that sort of thing happen in water.”

All these unanswered questions only increase the doubt local residents have about a project that many of them didn’t approve of in the first place. Caltrans has some explaining to do.