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UC Berkeley oil spill elicits concern over Strawberry Creek wildlife

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A worker places absorbant plume onto oil in Strawberry Creek.


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DECEMBER 12, 2011

An oil spill at UC Berkeley this weekend could have released more than 1,000 gallons of fuel into Strawberry Creek, raising concerns about the environmental impacts on the wildlife living in the stream.

After a tank containing diesel fuel was found overflowing in Stanley Hall Saturday evening, approximately 1,700 gallons of fuel flowed out into the building, with 1,290 gallons escaping into the environment, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. Although it remains unclear just how much flowed into the creek, oil has been spotted floating on the surface of the water over the past few days, and it has been confirmed that fuel made its way into the San Francisco Bay, where the creek ultimately deposits.

But while the words “oil spill” conjure up images of tarred birds and beached fish, campus officials maintain that the wildlife in the creek remains mainly unharmed, with much of the oil removed by the response team soon after the spill was discovered. An estimate Sunday put the number of gallons that entered the creek in the hundreds.

Strawberry Creek starts as two forks — both east of campus, one in Strawberry Canyon and one near Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — that meet on campus and flow through the city of Berkeley and end in the Berkeley Marina. The stream, which flows both underground and overground, is home to fish like minnows, sticklebacks and suckers, as well as crayfish, water striders and a large variety of vegetation.

Mary Simms, spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said an assessment is ongoing and that, as of Monday, there have been no reports of damage to wildlife, although she said it is too premature to determine definitively what the impacts are. The incident elicited a wide response, bringing in officials from the city of Berkeley, the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Tim Pine, environmental protection specialist with the campus Office of Environmental Health and Safety who oversees the creek, said that since fuel floats, it will only damage insects on the surface of the water — like water striders — and plants near the edge creek bed, not the fish that swim in the creek.

Pine and his colleagues traced the path of Strawberry Creek Monday looking for signs of damaged wildlife.

“We didn’t see any dead or distressed fish … haven’t witnessed anything like oiled birds,” he said. “This seems to be a relatively mild incident.”

Pine said a significant amount of oil made its way into the bay, but that the booms — sponge-like  materials that can float on water and take in the fuel — have been set up at various points along the creek, absorbing the fuel flowing in the creek and thereby limiting the amount that enters the bay.

What Pine did call “maddening” however, is that there is no way to determine just when the spill started and when the fuel started flowing into the creek.

After a police officer detected an odor coming from the creek Saturday evening around 7 p.m., what turned out to be a leak in the basement of Stanley Hall was contained by 9 p.m., according to Gilmore.

Following the overflow of the tank — which is used to power an emergency generator in the basement of the hall — some of the oil that had pooled and collected in the basement was automatically pumped out of the building and fed into the storm drains, which lead to the creek.

“It seems like some fuel made it to the bay before anyone realized what was happening,” Pine said.

El Cerrito resident Michael Katten said he was walking his labrador retriever along the creek near the Valley Life Sciences Building on campus early Saturday morning when his dog leapt into the creek and came out with an “overpowering” odor of gasoline.

Katten said he soon after washed Furkraag, his “10-year-old sweetheart of a dog,” yet there is still “a lingering smell.”

Gilmore said that although it has not been determined when the leak began, there is no indication that it began much before it was detected at 7 p.m.

The creek, which has historically been a site of pollution on campus since UC Berkeley was founded, has been undergoing restoration efforts over the past few decades. For now, the public has been asked to stay out of the creek, Gilmore said. Assessments of damage will continue into the week, she said.

No campus officials who commented on the incident, most of whom have been working at UC Berkeley for more than 10 years, said they could remember an oil spill this large during their time at the campus.

“Be thankful that the amount (into the creek) is quite small,” Pine said.

Contact Soumya Karlamangla at 


MARCH 24, 2012

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