One hundred gallons of sulfolane, a liquid chemical, inadvertently leaked from the Popco Oil and Gas facility near El Capitan yesterday and flowed into the waters of a nearby creek that empties into the ocean.

Although the Popco plant, owned by the Exxon Corporation, opened a secondary drain yesterday in preparation of the heavy rains, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. Captain Eli Iskow said reports indicate that a gasket failure allowed the sulfolane to seep into the flowing water. A plant employee noticed a leak coming from the lip of a gas processing exchanger unit at approximately 11:45 p.m. and initiated an emergency plant shutdown. An estimated 100 gallons of sulfolane flowed down the Las Flores creek towards the ocean before containment procedures secured the leak.

Several Santa Barbara agencies are investigating the spill, including the County Fire Dept.’s Hazardous Materials Unit, the County Office of Emergency Services, the County Energy Division, California Dept. of Fish and Game, the State Division of Oil and Gas and the U.S. Coast Guard. Due to the low toxicity and low flammability levels of the material, the leak is not considered a threat to employees or the general public, Iskow said.

This leak follows the recent Greka Energy Corp. spill that released 84,000 gallons of crude oil into a northern Santa Barbara County creek. The incident at the Popco facility was reportedly contained immediately while the Greka seepage had continued unnoticed for a full 13 hours. Iskow said that this accident is hardly comparable to Greka’s spill and that Popco’s measures and response were commendable.

“This facility is a very good operation and generally very safe,” Iskow said. “When they knew the storm was coming, they opened a gate to the secondary containment so the water is constantly flowing out. This was a rare instance where they had a mechanical failure at the same time as the storm.”

Despite the company’s efforts, Iskow also said that the chemical will certainly reach the open ocean.

“They shut down operation immediately,” Iskow said. “The stuff is very water soluble so anything that gets in the water will mix and be on its way. Anything that got in the water made it to the ocean, no question.”

Popco is currently working with county and state agencies and will return to operation only after isolating the cause of the gasket failure. Iskow said that the particular plant has acted forthright and has been helpful with the investigation process.

“They’re bending over backwards to help us,” Iskow said. “They’ve always been like that. We’ve always had a good relationship with this facility. They always do the right thing on a regular basis.”