STATE OF EMERGENCY: 21,000 Gallons of Crude Oil Spilled on California’s Coast

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On Tuesday, May 19, up to 105,000 gallons of oil spilled from an eleven-mile, twenty-four-inch oil pipeline at Refugio beach in Santa Barbara County. The oil has formed two slicks that stretch a total of nine miles along the coast of southern California. Plains All American, a Texas company that runs the pipeline, has taken responsibility for the spill.

Some of the oil made its way into a drainpipe running under the U.S. 101 freeway, allowing up to 21,000 gallons to enter the Pacific Ocean, according to the company’s estimates. The U.S. Coast Guard concurs — though it isn’t clear whether it reached the number independently.

Overhead view of Refugio State Beach on the day after the spill, via KTLA 5

Overhead view of Refugio State Beach on the day after the spill, via KTLA 5

At a news conference, Plains spokesperson Darren Palmer issued this statement:

“We’re sorry this accidental release has happened… Our focus remains on the safety of first responders, and the protection of the environment. We are sorry for the inconvenience experienced by the community.”

Palmer went on to say that the company is investigating to determine the cause of the leak, and that it was likely not caused by any weakness in the pipeline. The pipeline, constructed in 1991, was inspected just weeks ago, though the company has yet to completely analyze the results.

California’s government officials are taking the spill more seriously than a mere inconvenience. “This is just a disaster,” said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr. “It’s important to remember this stretch of California coastline is unique to the world. It’s beautiful and pristine.”

California Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed a State of Emergency for Santa Barbara County to expedite the cleanup process, and to “do everything necessary to protect California’s coastline.”

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), have established a unified command, bringing local, state, and federal officials together to ensure a more coordinated and effective response to the spill.

According to Governor Brown’s announcement, the spill is a threat to marine mammals and fish, and has already damaged the sensitive habitats of at least two protected birds — though the USFWS has not released any firm numbers on how many animals the spilled oil has so far affected.

Two campers attempt to rescue a bird at Refugio beach after the spill. Photo Credit: Lara Ann Cooper/Noozhawk via Common Dreams News

Two campers attempt to rescue a bird at Refugio beach after the spill. Photo Credit: Lara Ann Cooper/Noozhawk via Common Dreams News

Chief counsel for Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center Linda Krop called the area of the spill “one of the most biologically rich places on the planet,” and says she doesn’t know “what the eventual harm will be.”

Krop, who visited Refugio beach hours after the spill, expressed concern for the area’s wildlife. “Right now we have migratory whales, including endangered humpbacks and blue whales… [and] gray whales migrating back from Baja to Alaska, and they come closer to shore. We also have a lot of very rare seabirds and other coastal endangered species. It is a very, very sensitive, important place.”

This isn’t the first time Plains All American has spilled oil in California. Last year on May 15 a valve failure caused one of Plains’ pumping stations to leak nearly 19,000 gallons of oil in Atwater Village, Los Angeles. The company has also had a history of breaching federal regulations, amassing 175 maintenance and safety violations since 2006.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.