By Doug Oakley
A diesel spill into Strawberry Creek at UC Berkeley on Saturday night sickened two employees at an office downstream when they went to work Monday, the office director said.
A malfunctioning backup electrical generator spilled about 1,650 gallons of fuel at Stanley Hall on the campus, and about 1,290 gallons was pumped into Strawberry Creek, which flows three miles from the campus to San Francisco Bay, officials said.
"Two people went home feeling sick to their stomachs and I was feeling sick, too," said Susan Friedland, executive director of Affordable Housing Associates, whose office is right next to the waterway at Strawberry Creek Park in Berkeley. "Everybody was back Tuesday. Today it still smells but it's not as toxic as it was."
Diesel fuel continued flowing into the bay as late as Wednesday, five days after the spill. The oil was pumped into a storm drain from Stanley Hall, then into the creek, which flows all the way to the bay at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley.
UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore, who was speaking for the university and responding agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the state Department of Fish and Game, said no wildlife had been reported harmed.
According to a UC Berkeley website dedicated to Strawberry Creek, the waterway is home to three kinds of fish, newts, crawfish, slugs and snails. The creek runs above ground on campus and below ground through Berkeley except for a short stretch in Strawberry Creek Park.
Agencies responding to the spill put absorbing booms in the bay to soak up the fuel and assigned two security guards to keep people away from the area 24 hours a day. The booms also were placed in the creek on campus, in Strawberry Creek Park and at Aquatic Park, where part of the creek drains before it ends in the bay.
In addition to the absorbing booms, Gilmore said two private contractors hired by the university have been vacuuming diesel from the bay.
"It was an accident and we're doing everything we can to mitigate the damage and clean it up as soon as possible," Gilmore said.
A spokeswoman for the environmental group Save the Bay said that though the diesel fuel will do harm to fish and wildlife and their habitat in the bay, it's important to keep in mind that 1,290 gallons is a drop in the bucket compared with how much oil goes into the bay each year.
"These spills are harmful, but there are more oil and fuel and car pollutants that find their way into the bay each year to the tune of 3 million gallons," Amy Ricard said. "It's important to remember with 7 million residents in the Bay Area, a lot more oil gets into the bay than we know. Everything that comes off our streets goes into storm drains, into creeks and into the bay."
Stanley Hall, the largest research building on campus, reopened to faculty members and students early Monday after air-quality tests determined the building was safe, Gilmore said.
The spill was reported Saturday night after a mechanical failure caused a tank that stores diesel for Stanley Hall's emergency backup generator to overflow. Some of the diesel was contained on the first basement level where the storage tank is located but nearly 1,300 gallons flowed to the third basement level and into the building's sump pump.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.