It was a perfect confluence of lucky breaks that saved the Los Angeles River from environmental damage, said California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) spokesperson Andrew Hughan, two days after more than 200 firefighters responded to a tanker truck fire and fuel spill in northeast Los Angeles.
The no-injury incident, where a big rig tanker truck and trailer overturned, spilling its 8,500-gallon fuel cargo at the I-5 and 2 freeway interchange, produced Michael Bay-esque images of a burning Los Angeles River and surrounding vegetation.
Despite dramatic images of the accident that streamed out courtesy of the Los Angeles Fire Department , Hughan had confidently stated, "There's very little to no environmental damage to the L.A. River."
Houghan continued. "An overwhelming majority of the gas burned out. A small amount was able to get into the storm drain into the Los Angeles River, but fortunately it drained right into a sandbar, not 100 feet below the storm drain."
As the incident was unfolding, the Mountains Recreations and Conservation Authority was actually in the middle of one of their summer programs and consequently had to shepherd participants out of the hazard area. "We have training for all kinds of emergency procedures," says Jamie Cabral, who oversees the interpretative programs. "But nothing quite prepares you for what to do when you see the Los Angeles River burning."
The participants in MRCA's summer programs were all able to get to safety. The city also closed down the bike path and the recreational zone to ensure the public's safety.
An environmental contractor with the CDFW was also luckily close to the scene when the accident occurred, and was able to vacuum the remaining fuel. A small amount of fuel did reach the sand bar however, but Fernando Gomez, Chief Ranger at the MRCA, estimates it to be only about five gallons. Houghan predicts the gasoline would evaporate quickly, leaving no long-term damage.
As the Caltrans and the Department of Transportation determine the extent of the damage to the infrastructure surrounding the incident, CDFW has taken a "do less harm" approach with regards to the Los Angeles River. The agency will not undertake any clean-up efforts, operating with the logic that any work they would do would only more harm to the fragile environment there.
The Los Angeles River bike path was re-opened Monday. Today, the recreational zone is once again open for public use, confirms Gomez. Access to the river does come with some precautions. "We want people to know that there may still be some foul-smelling fumes emitted from the site," said Gomez, "It's just going to be smelly, but city officials have determined there's no concern about it being explosive."
Top: L.A. River as it looked on July 16. Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures