By Kathryn Parsons, Lauren Lankenau, and Kela Megorden (Environmental Defense Center Interns)
Tasked with the quest to analyze ExxonMobil’s proposal to restart offshore platforms (shut down since the 2015 Plains Pipeline spill that devastated the coastline) and truck oil along our precious coast, we set off on a collective years-long journey riddled with unrest at the thought of a significant increase in the amount of oil tanker trucks in our community. It truly baffles us that there is a proposition to extract oil, then use trucks—that need oil to move—as a transportation method. It seems like a get one fish hook unstuck by using another fish hook type of situation. With headlines like 105 Freeway Reopens Hours After 2 Are Killed in Fiery Tanker Truck Crash in Hawthorne, or Oil Tanker Crash: “Everything It Touched Was on Fire”, to Two Killed in Head-On Collision, Tanker Explosion on HWY 20 in Sierra, it is a true quandary that this proposal is even on the table. Since the start of our internships at the Environmental Defense Center we have found almost 80 recent tanker truck crashes in California alone.
Let’s Explore The Facts:
- ExxonMobil proposes to add 70 round-trip truck trips every 24 hours
- The trucks would travel along Highway 101 and Route 166
- Each truck will carry 5,040 to 6,720 gallons of oil
- At least 79 tanker truck crashes have occurred in California in the last 21 years, including 12 in Santa Barbara County
- These accidents left 56 people injured and 28 people dead
- Over 100,000 gallons of oil spilled
- Accidents caused countless hours of commuter traffic and road closures
- Countless ecosystems impaired by spills
So, Are The Impacts Really Worth It?
We would argue definitely not. The truck routes that ExxonMobil proposes pass schools, the Gaviota Coast, numerous houses, businesses, water systems, preserves, vineyards, and other assorted agricultural areas. The resulting environmental damage from the accidents we’ve found include fires leading to home evacuations, burning of storm drains in the Los Angeles River, oil migrating through storm drains into the San Diego River and adjoining shorelines, burning of hundreds of acres in the Rose Fire, disintegration of roadways, creek and soil contamination, as well as drinking water contamination. Most recently, an oil tanker truck crashed on Route 166, spilling oil into the Cuyama River.
Truck Crashes Aren’t All Preventable
Aside from a mistake on the tanker truck driver’s part, these crashes aren’t always due to human error; we have read of tanker tires blowing out, spontaneous combustion after impact, and unknown reasons causing trucks to overturn. Additionally, the most common causes are other cars losing control, and drunken drivers crashing into tanker trucks. We even found an instance of a tanker truck colliding with a cow, spilling 10,000 gallons of fuel, killing the driver, and knocking out power to 400 people.
Some Crashes To Learn From
The first tanker truck crash we found was in between our neighbors of Carpinteria and Ventura in the year 2000. It shut down both sides of the freeway, spilled 5,000 gallons, and reached the ocean, killing crabs, fish, and birds, forcing a hotel evacuation, and delaying train travel. All of this because the driver fell asleep behind the wheel.
On December 12, 2018, a driver died in a fiery head-on collision. This photo shows Santa Barbara emergency responders inspecting the vehicle involved in the tanker trucker crash on Highway 166 east of Santa Maria. A Ford F-250 pickup truck was eastbound when it drifted into the westbound lanes and into the path of semi tractor-trailer loaded with crude-oil. Oil from the tanker-truck leaked out onto the dirt and the roadway during recovery operations. (Photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
On April 29, 2007, an oil tanker truck crash in the Bay Area snarled the commute of the MacArthur Maze, where several freeways assemble to approach the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco with the cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The truck driver lost control in a curve, hit a guardrail, and flipped the truck onto its side. This led to an explosion and the collapse of Interstate 580 onto some lanes of Interstate 880 below, complicating commutes for months. It was a truly frustrating experience for all in the area.
Fast-forward 10 years and hop back down south to Santa Barbara when another 5,000 gallons of gasoline spilled onto Highway 101. This crash disintegrated the concrete, necessitating the closure and repaving of the freeway during an active wildfire evacuation. The efficiency of evacuation during the Thomas Fire—the largest fire in California history at the time—was severely impacted by this spill. All northbound lanes of Highway 101 were closed into the next day, and evacuees were diverted off the freeway at Turnpike Road, while State Route 154 was closed to through traffic between Santa Barbara and State Route 246 in the Santa Ynez Valley. This was not the best situation to be dealing with when residents were quite literally running for their lives.
Santa Barbara County experienced one of its worst oil tanker accidents on March 21, 2020. A tanker truck on Route 166 overturned down an embankment causing 6,600 gallons of crude oil to spill into the Cuyama River, ten miles away from Twitchell Dam and reservoir. The spill harmed wildlife, as several mallard ducks died and other animals, including turtles and birds, were rescued and cleaned up. Three species of special concern included the California red-legged frog, western pond turtle, and arroyo toad.
The clean-up efforts from the March 21, 2020 oil spill in Cuyama River, due to a tanker truck accident along Highway 166 near Santa Maria. A tanker truck overturned down the embankment, spilling 6, 600 gallons of crude oil. Photo by OSPR.
On April 16, 2020, a tanker truck crashed into the guardrail and center divider near the Arroyo Hondo Bridge on Highway 101. Sixteen gallons of oil spilled onto the roadway and southbound lanes were closed for several hours. The Arroyo Hondo Bridge lays above sensitive habitat and territory of the endangered Steelhead found in the Arroyo Hondo Creek.
This map shows ExxonMobil’s proposed oil tanker truck route overlaid with recent tanker accidents.
The Implications of ExxonMobil’s Proposed Project
Adding 140 tanker truck trips daily to Highway 101 between ExxonMobil’s Gaviota oil processing facility and the Santa Maria Pump Station poses significant public safety and environmental concerns for Santa Barbara County. Not only will the tanker trucks have to travel on windy, gusty roads, but also through the Gaviota Tunnel, the narrow Gaviota Pass, and over the Nojoqui grade. These areas have poor cell reception, making 911 calls difficult. In addition, the roads on either side of the Gaviota Pass straddle a river, meaning spilled oil will impact the waterway and eventually reach the Pacific Ocean.
Adding these trucks to Route 166 as proposed is also extremely dangerous. Cell coverage is also spotty on this road, which is known for having frequent accidents. For this reason, in August 2020, Santa Barbara County staff recommended prohibiting tanker trucks on this road. As County staff stated, this proposal would increase the risk of truck accidents and oil spills. However, the staff position has changed and in their most recent report they are now recommending approval of this dangerous route.
Read the rest of the report at environmentaldefensecenter.org.