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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

As Cleanup Continues, Investigators Seek a Cause

Spill: CHP says company had been cited for brake violations, but firm blames 'driver error.' Crews work to save wildlife, contain spread of crude oil.

March 01, 2000|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The driver who was killed when his tanker truck crashed and spilled 4,000 gallons of crude oil into Ventura County streams this week had two accidents in the last three years and worked for a company with a spate of violations for truck brake problems, officials for the California Highway Patrol said Tuesday.

As investigators spent their second day at the crash site in a remote canyon north of Santa Paula, new discoveries emerged about events leading to the accident. But they raised just as many questions that will probably take months to answer.

The cause of Monday's crash near Steckel Park has not been determined, but investigators are examining whether a combination of road conditions, driver error and mechanical problems contributed.

According to the CHP, trucks operated by Westlake Village-based R.P. Cummings Inc. have been cited four times in the last year on state highways for various brake problems. The company, a division of Wastec Inc., operates tanker trucks that carry petroleum from well fields scattered from Santa Maria to Santa Paula.

And while the victim in Monday's crash, 41-year-old Patrick J. Hildebrand of Ventura, had not received any recent citations, he was involved in two collisions in the last three years, one in August 1997 and another in January 1999, CHP spokesman Dave Webb said.

It was not clear, however, if those accidents involved big trucks or cars, and details were not available Tuesday. Webb emphasized that he considered Hildebrand's driving record "pretty clean."

"To me, this is a pretty good driver. He doesn't seem like an out-of-control driver," Webb said.

A spokesman for the trucking company, reached at the scene of the accident Monday, said the brakes on the ill-fated truck had been inspected and serviced Jan. 21 and could not possibly be the cause of the accident.

Furthermore, a CHP inspection of the company's Oxnard truck terminal in August revealed that all truck logs, hazardous materials records and maintenance records were in order, said Dave Woods, supervisor of the motor carrier safety unit for the CHP's Central Coast office.

"It was a driver error" that led to the crash, said David Allen, general manager at R. P. Cummings.

Meanwhile, cleanup crews spent Tuesday struggling to save wildlife and prevent the further spread of light crude oil, which had sullied 20 miles of wildlife habitat in Santa Paula Creek and Santa Clara River.

*

Signs of ecological damage were apparent, but limited, and included an oil-coated duck and some dead fish--including endangered southern steelhead trout, which migrated from the ocean to spawn. But the full environmental damage may be difficult to catalog.

"This is a serious incident, but a lot of the damage is relatively invisible. Sometimes, animals get oil on them and fly away or move to other areas. Just because we can't find them doesn't mean they are not there," said Ken Wilson, environmental specialist for the state Fish and Game Department's Oil Spill Prevention and Response unit.

The pollution is concentrated along an eight-mile stretch of the two waterways. Those streams contain lush stands of woodland thickets that attract songbirds and drain into an estuary near Ventura Harbor.

Oil reaching the Pacific Ocean is fairly dilute, however, and does not appear to be a serious threat to people or wildlife in that area, Wilson said.

Oil pooled behind dikes erected to slow its advance is being skimmed away, and cleanup crews will spend the coming weeks using high-powered hoses to blast globs of oil off riverbanks so it can be captured downstream, Wilson said. The rest is beginning to sink to the bottom, posing a long-term threat to creatures at the base of the food chain.

At the scene of the crash, Webb said a preliminary examination of the oil service road in Anlauf Canyon indicates that trouble began on the ill-fated truck, which was hauling 8,000 gallons of light crude oil, well before it plunged into a ravine atop a cliff above the creek.

*

Upon his return to California 150 after filling the truck with oil from a well field operated by Vintage Petroleum Inc., Hildebrand apparently struggled to gain control over the runaway big rig for about one mile down a steep mountainous road before the crash.

Webb said skid marks on the road, tracks on the shoulder of the roadway, and broken branches on trees and shrubs suggest that the driver fought to prevent the crash, and it also raises concerns about the performance of the truck's brakes.

"Based on him attempting to slow down all the way down [the mountain], it's a good sign the brakes may have been failing, but we don't know that," Webb said.

He added that investigators are also focusing on whether wet or icy conditions, caused by recent storms and chill temperatures in the mountains near Los Padres National Forest, may have contributed to the crash.

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