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After violent crash, Sonoma County confronts issue of overweight fire debris trucks

Dump trucks hauling debris away from fire-ravaged neighborhoods in Sonoma County have repeatedly been overloaded, exceeding weight limits designed to ensure they are safe to drive on public roads, according to county officials and the company that operates the county landfill.

The issue is coming under increased scrutiny in the wake of a violent wreck on Monday at the base of Fountain Grove Parkway, where a dump truck descending from the hillside neighborhood failed to stop at a red light and plowed through a crowded intersection, causing a 10-vehicle pileup that critically injured three motorists.

A recurring problem with overloaded trucks has been documented at the county landfill, where thousands upon thousands of trucks have driven through the gates to dump rubble from neighborhoods leveled by the October wildfires.

Local law enforcement say they are ill-equipped to inspect trucks to ensure they are complying with weight limits. Federal officials said they are not aware of problems and have found no evidence that drivers are hauling larger loads than allowed under the law.

It is not clear whether weight was a factor in Monday’s crash. Investigators are looking closely at the truck’s ability to stop as it carried a full load of debris west down the hill and ran a red light at Mendocino Avenue, crashing into seven vehicles and injuring seven people. The truck’s driver, Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale, told police his brakes failed.

The speed and weight of the four-axle 2009 Kenworth dump truck are still being reviewed by the Santa Rosa Police Department with assistance from the California Highway Patrol - the state agency that manages commercial vehicle safety. The results may not be available for two weeks, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chad Heiser said.

The truck’s weight is seen as a key factor in determining how the incident may have occurred, especially because of the implications for traffic safety.

Officials for Burlingame-based ECC, the main government contractor in cleanup of burned residential lots, stated the truck’s load would have been about 15 tons. Rodriguez was working for an ECC subcontractor at the time of the incident.

Overweight trucks are a serious concern because they can affect a vehicle’s braking as well as other mechanical systems, said Rich Gioscia, ECC’s vice president of environment, safety and quality control.

Trucks with loads above their permitted weight have arrived with some regularity to the designated fire debris drop-off site at Sonoma County’s Central Landfill, according to a spokeswoman for Republic Services, the national waste company that operates the county-owned facility west of Cotati.

The scope of the problem is not clear.

The county said it has no documents on weight violations at the landfill and referred a public records request by The Press Democrat to Republic Services. Records were requested from the waste firm last week, but it has yet to provide documents detailing the number of overloaded trucks encountered at the landfill, where trucks are weighed entering and leaving the facility.

The frequency has declined after landfill workers began notifying drivers and contractors of violations, said Jennifer Eldridge, a Republic Services spokeswoman.

“We believe we do a good job with contractors to make sure we’re seeing a decline in overweight vehicles,” said Eldridge. “What we’ve seen is after written notification, they go back and make adjustments.”

Republic has instructed staff to accept overweight trucks, but issue a warning to drivers and inform the prime contractor of repeat offenses. That policy has led to fewer occurrences, but overloaded trucks have continued to enter the landfill, according to Trish Pisenti, the county’s integrated waste manager.

“It didn’t go away,” said Pisenti. “But it did result in seeing less of them.”

Gioscia, the ECC executive, directed additional inquiries about reports of overweight trucks at the landfill to an ECC colleague. A message left with August Ochabauer, the company’s vice president of operations, went unreturned.

The state Department of Transportation sets weight limits for commercial vehicles, which can vary depending on the size of the truck and the number of axles it has.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for oversight and management of the cleanup project, relies on drivers to be responsible for knowing the weight capacity of their trucks and abiding by those limits, and the prime contractor to ensure compliance. Because enforcement at the landfill ultimately rests with the federal agency, it conducts spot checks of recorded weights, and also investigates complaints of overloaded trucks when they are reported by the contractor.

Rick Brown, a spokesman for the Army Corps, said the agency has only been informed of a couple of instances of overweight debris trucks at the county landfill.

“When these allegations are raised to the Corps, the Corps investigates,” said Brown. “Each time there has been an allegation of the overloaded trucks during this mission, the Corps’ investigations did not substantiate those allegations.”

Without the necessary tools or training, Santa Rosa police lack the ability to enforce commercial vehicle regulations beyond standard moving violations.

On the roadways, CHP’s commercial operations unit is in charge of stopping trucks to perform random weight checks and enforce carrier restrictions. There is no truck weigh station on Highway 101 between Santa Rosa and the landfill west of Cotati.

The Golden Gate Division possesses 18 mobile road officers for its nine-county jurisdiction that includes Sonoma County, on top of a team of three dozen civilian specialists who mostly ensure the administrative side of trucking operations are up to code. In response to what was expected to be considerable increases in hauler traffic during the fire cleanup, the division shifted eight of its road?officers to the Santa Rosa area for extra enforcement and conducted 25 educational presentations for contractors.

Capt. Les Bishop, special services commander of the CHP Golden Gate Division, did not offer specific numbers when asked if the ramped-up patrols have resulted in more citations. He said he believed the additional inspection work, along with the two-pronged approach that includes both education and enforcement, is working to protect commuters and residents during the extensive debris cleanup.

“We’ve done everything we can to make it as safe as possible,” he said. “I think we’ve given it quite a bit of attention, and will continue to do that until the recovery effort is done.”

On Monday after the fiery crash, at the request of federal officials overseeing the cleanup, ECC installed electronic signs on Fountain Grove Parkway urging truckers to use low gears on the steep hill, and to lower speeds to 25 mph.

On Wednesday, Santa Rosa police officials launched a weeklong special traffic enforcement operation at the intersection of Fountain Grove Parkway and Mendocino Avenue. Police officers will be monitoring traffic and looking specifically for red light, speeding and lane violations.

Santa Rosa-based CHP Officer Jon Sloat called the overall safety effort “unprecedented.” Incidents like Monday’s crash, he said, may just be a statistical reality that results from having more commercial trucks out on the roads during the cleanup.

“It may not be an overall safety issue,” said Sloat. “It may just be a fact of the numbers. There’s more of them on the road, so we’ll probably see more accidents. If we were removing debris in little red wagons, we’d probably see an increase in little red wagon accidents.”

Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@kfixler.

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