Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – Trenched, culverted and clogged with fugitive sawdust over the years, the battered north fork of Janes Creek may be Arcata’s hardest-luck waterway. The fortunes of the sad little ditch along West End Road remained consistent last week, when an oil spill at a nearby business threatened to gum up the waters with grease.
But thanks to what the City calls a “very robust” response by the business, Footprint Recycling, environmental damage was averted.
The problem came to light Friday morning, said Footprint owner Andy Cooper. The previous evening, a timer-controlled pump had been left on to infuse restaurant grease with water as part of a purification procedure. But the timer failed and the pump stayed on, causing a tank to overflow and spill about 1,000 gallons of methyl ester, a precursor substance to biodiesel.
When an employee opened the business at 6:45 a.m., the grease flowed over his shoes and out the door. Cooper said the employee acted swiftly to contain the spill, but not before 200 to 500 gallons of the substance escaped to the outside and began flowing toward the creek.
Cooper then called in another staffmember, and after an unknown interval notified environmental officials and began cleaning up the mess. The City of Arcata, state Dept. of Fish and Game and Coast Guard all responded. The Environmental Protection Agency and Water Quality Control Board were notified as well.
Environmental Services Director Mark Andre said that “everyone responded very well,” but that the City has issued a cease and desist order and initiated nuisance abatement procedures to ensure that Footprint adopts BMPs – Best Management Practices – to prevent any recurrence of the spill. That would include new containment structures inside the building.
Cooper said part of the problem is that the building Footprint uses is not designed for grease refinement. Plans for a custom-designed building on Giuntoli Lane have been slowly working their way through the City approval process; too slowly for Cooper. “We’ve outgrown this facility,” he said.
Footprint’s clean-up efforts continued over the weekend, with kitty litter and absorbent sheets used to sop up the spill. Cooper said that about half the methyl ester had been recaptured, and that after more processing, most of it can still be used for biodiesel.
Andre called the response “very robust,” and said that water samples were taken, since some of the grease appeared to have contaminated the creek.
As stressful as the incident might have been, Cooper was near-ebullient Sunday as he took a break to walk his dog on Mad River Beach before returning to spend the night at the shop, making sure everything continued to go smoothly.
He said he was inundated with offers of assistance from well-wishers, including customers, friends and biodiesel fans. “This was a lot of fun to see, how many people came together to help,” he said. “People showed up and grabbed a shovel.”
He said that for all the concern, methyl ester was comparatively a benign substance. “We found worms kicking around in it, happy happy,” he said. “This is the best type of fuel anybody could possibly spill.”
But he isn’t taking any chances. Henceforth, the grease-washing cycle will be monitored and not left on autopilot. “We’re not gonna let this happen again,” Cooper said.