Update, May 23rd: Per this article in the Santa Barbara Independent, all Santa Barbara County oil production has been temporarily suspended: http://www.independent.com/news/2015/may/23/refugio-pipeline-shutdown-puts-brakes-oil-producti/
Additional information may be found in this piece, also from the Independent: http://www.independent.com/news/2015/may/21/whos-watching-man-whos-watching-pipeline/
As this is written, about 100 hours have elapsed since the Refugio Oil Spill was first reported. At least some facts are now clear: 9 miles of the Gaviota Coast have been fouled by the major oil spill from a pipeline located just west of Refugio State Beach and on the north side of Highway 101. The pipeline ruptured late in the morning of May 19th, and somewhere between 21,000 gallons and 105,000 gallons of oil poured directly onto the beach into the ocean via a storm drain that leads under the highway.
We have several recent developments to report on: as discovered and initially reported on by Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent, the pipeline that broke is the only oil pipeline in Santa Barbara County not equipped with an automatic shutoff valve. This is the result of Plains All American Pipeline (PAAP) having successfully sued the County of Santa Barbara some two decades ago in an effort to shift regulatory oversight for the pipeline from the county to the federal level, which has less stringent pipeline safety standards. Second, and in a related story, the federal regulatory agency which oversees pipeline safety decreed on May 21 that the broken pipeline responsible for the Refugio Oil Spill be shut down immediately. The agency chose not to provide PAAP prior notice before requiring shutdown of the pipeline. Additionally, it now appears that PAAP staff were physically present at the site of the spill when the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. responded to a call from a tourist indicating that she smelled oil in the air. Obviously, many questions remain: what was PAAP staff doing to prevent further spillage and contamination? Why did it take so long to shut down the pipeline in the middle of the day? What, precisely, caused a pipeline that had ostensibly been inspected only a few months prior to fail?
While the spill affected roughly nine miles of coast, the four-plus mile stretch of beach between Tajiguas (to the north) and Lorraine's (to the south) was the most heavily impacted section of coastline, and will require years to recover. Much of the exposed bedrock along this coast is now coated in a shiny black ooze of oil. There are reports of Snowy Plover colonies being forced from their nests because the beaches are simply covered in oil, and they are unable to feed. This reporter walked this length of coast on May 22, and within minutes found his eyes stinging and watering, and was coughing from benzene and other chemical fumes. While the negative impact of this spill on wildlife and on beaches to the north and south of Refugio remains unclear at this time, we have heard reports of significant amounts of oil appearing at Coal Oil Point (Devereux Point) and Campus Point. We will be monitoring of the full extent of the spill over the coming days and weeks.
The clean up effort, underway since May 20, is headed by Patriot Oilfield Services of Long Beach,a contract company selected by PAAP, despite there being local firms that likely would have been able to initiate the clean up process more quickly. The clean up does seem to be gaining momentum; as of first light on the morning of Wednesday, May 20th, the entire effort appeared to consist of a pair of tugboats pulling a boom, a Coast Guard cutter assessing the damage from the water, and several small teams of individuals discussing the situation from various beaches. Also on Wednesday morning, an intrepid volunteer convinced a local hardware store to donate a number of orange 5 gallon buckets and trash bags, and while most of the formal agency response involved officials setting up their RVs at Refugio Campground, four volunteers on the beach shoveled oil into the buckets. These early actions reduced the amount of oil that washed back out with the tide and would otherwise be drifting south towards the City of Santa Barbara today. By Friday, May 22nd, Tyvek-suited work crews were engaged in collecting globs of sandy oil from the beach, shoveling it into bags, and passing the bags hand-over-hand to a long line of waiting trucks for disposal. While it is heartening to see real effort being made, it is hard to not wonder whether at least some of the damage to our beaches could have been prevented, had the response been faster and better organized.
This absolutely inexcusable incident illustrates the crucial need for oversight of the oil industry, clear protocols regarding monitoring and and maintenance of equipment, and redundancy in safeguards. All of us interested in preserving the extraordinary place that is the Gaviota Coast should take a few moments to consider what we can do to help preserve this amazing locale in all of its beauty, and to ensure that accidents of this nature do not occur again.
Please consider donating or volunteering time to the local environmental organization of your choice, whether it is the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Save Naples Coalition, The Surfrider Foundation, Santa Barbara Channelkeepers, or the Environmental Defense Center. Each of us has something to contribute, and quite literally every bit helps.
As a reminder, local environmental groups are planning a "Stand in the Sand" rally for 12 noon on Sunday, May 31, on State Street in Santa Barbara. We will update this space with additional details as they become available. Those interested in volunteering with animals injured by oil can find information at calspillwatch.dfg.ca.gov.
As the second day of the Refugio Oil Spill winds down, more questions arise as more information becomes available. Why wasn’t the leak detected immediately, and why has it taken so long for containment and cleanup efforts to engage? Why has a distant firm been retained to lead the cleanup effort when local firms have the equipment and resources to start the cleanup? How could this section of pipeline be inspected two weeks ago and presumably cleared for use, yet then fail so catastrophically? During permitting and in a subsequent lawsuit, the operator successfully argued against local oversight in favor of the State Fire Marshall – the only pipeline in the County without local oversight. Was the State as vigilant as it needed to be? Why did the County’s Emergency Operations Manager initially say this was an abandoned pipeline?
The spill has grown to 105,000 gallons from 21,000, and from four miles wide to nine. Calm winds have been replaced this evening by strong offshores, which will likely blow the now two oil slicks off shore and away from the coast. Air pollution from the oil slick is a health hazard, prompting public safety advisories to warn humans to stay away – but marine critters won’t get the memo. The number of oiled birds and animals is expected to rise dramatically in coming days. Both Refugio and El Capitan Campgrounds have been closed to the public as the slick moves easterly, towards Santa Barbara. Representatives of local Chumash tribes have been notified and are providing monitors to ensure consideration of sensitive resources.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the pipeline operator, Plains Pipeline, has a rate of incidents per mile three times greater than the national average. Plains is number five in incidents nationally, among 1,700 pipeline operators. They have repeatedly stated their “deep regret that the release happened.” This pipeline carried up to 6,300,000 gallons of oil daily.
Due to the hazards and the nature of current cleanup activities, volunteers are not desired at the site at this time. See https://calspillwatch.dfg.ca.gov/Spill-Archive/Refugio-Incident/Volunteer to learn when and how you can help out.
Local groups are planning a "Stand in the Sand" event at Noon on Sunday, May 31, on State Street in Santa Barbara.
The pipeline rupture near Refugio State Beach on the Gaviota Coast confirms the fact that oil production and transportation are not secure and threaten the environment that the Santa Barbara community has worked so hard to preserve. The Gaviota Coast is a world class environment and deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and not degraded by extractive oil industries. Oil production, processing, and transportation facilities should be removed from the Santa Barbara Channel and the Gaviota Coast as soon as possible.