Middle Fork Smith River Tar Spill

April 2022 Toxic Spill in the Middle Fork Smith River
previous arrow
next arrow


On April 28, a semi-truck, containing an estimated 2,000 gallons of asphalt tar, collided with a power pole on U.S. Highway 199 and delivered a payload of contamination, potentially harmful to fish, plants, wildlife and humans into the Middle Fork of the Smith River. The driver of the truck was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and a misdemeanor hit and run. Read the Wild Rivers Outpost story about the event here.

In the week following the toxic spill, the road was cleaned, limited material was removed from the site and some cleanup efforts were made by US Forest Service, CalTrans and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Authorities said that the hot asphalt binder will have little impact and spread as it solidifies in cold water.

May 2022 Update on the Spreading Sludge

Recently, residents and visitors along the Smith River in Hiouchi (home to the Jedediah Smith State Park Campground) have reported black globs of tar in the water, on rocks and plants.

Video provided by a concerned citizen regarding asphalt tar contaminating the Middle Fork of the Smith River on May 22, 2022. Due to high temperatures and sun, the tar is slowly flowing into the Smith.

Report for Smith River Spill 25 May 2022 by Craig Strong, Crescent Coastal Research

            I visited the river again today at 0600 to clean up Asphalt sealer tar on the beach along the gravel bar in Hiouchi (410 47’ 16.6” N, 1240 03’ 29.6” W, pieces of material were found up to 300 m above and below that location).

            The material was indeed easier to remove during the cool morning temperatures (about 530 F); it cracked into pieces rather than having a gooey texture.  However, tar patches that had melted in prior days heat onto willow branches or in among rocks was essentially unrecoverable without more equipment and manpower. 

            It was noted that small pieces were being deposited at the current water line, ie: recently arrived from the spill site.  The larger globs are now from 1 to 2.5 feet above current river levels, suggesting that a large flow of the contaminant occurred between 10 days and 2 weeks ago when the weather started warming. 

            In roughly 1.2 hours I picked up 34 globs of sealer ranging in size from about 0.4 inches to 6 x 10 inches, mostly of less that 2 inches across. These weighted approximately 4 pounds, but with an additional 4 pounds of pebbles and vegetation they were glued to. Most larger pieces had melted into the substrate and were unrecoverable. 

Liaison Update #1 5/27/2022

UPDATED 5/27/2022
OES Report # 22-2410

Prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, California Department of Fish & Wildlife and California State Parks.


What is this substance?

The asphalt substance was spilled on U.S. 199 on April 28, 2022 and is leaking into the river.

The Safety Data Sheet on the asphalt substance can be found here.

Jed Smith State Park Campground Riparian Area Sullied by Tar

Park staff report that the black asphalt tar has reached the beach in Jed Smith State Park, about 6 miles from the original spill site. A quarter of a mile of beach was inspected along the bank of Smith River at the Jed Smith Campground and the black globs of tar were found at fifteen locations close to and at the waterline.

Jed Smith Campground and Day-Use Area is one of the most popular north coast destinations and families will be swimming and recreating in and amongst these tar sites. The black tar is tacky to the touch and becomes gooey as the days warm.  Regardless of toxicity, the material poses detrimental impacts to wildlife that encounter the material.