Refugio Oil Spill and the impact on Santa Barbara County

Nearly a month ago a ruptured Plains All American Pipeline leaked 105,000 gallons of crude oil, with over 21,000 gallons leaking in the ocean affecting marine, coastal, and other wildlife.

=== Refugio Oil Spill: Chronology of Events ===

The Refugio Oil Spill happened in Santa Barbara County, California, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. At 11.42 am (Brugger, 2015), the first 9-1-1 call went to the dispatch center for Gaviota. A ranch owner in the area smelled the strong oil odor and called emergency crews to investigate the source. When Engine 18’s crew saw the oil spill in the Ocean, further measures were taken in order to inform the respective authorities. At 12.39 pm (Brugger, 2015) the U.S. Coast Guard is alerted of the potential spill, but at that time the source of the leak is still unknown. Emergency crews and members of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) follow the flow of the oil and shortly after found the source of the oil spill. A 24-inch rupture in a pipeline belonging to Texas based “Plains All American Pipeline” is made responsible for the oil spill (Flores, 2015). Upon finding the source of the leak, professionals were able to cap the rupture at about 2.09pm, over 2 hours after the first 9-1-1 call was placed (Flores, 2015). Up to this time it was still unknown how the pipe ruptured and how much oil spilled into the ocean.   Early reports that the ruptured pipeline was abandoned were quickly corrected by officials. “Plains All-American Pipeline” confirmed that the pipeline responsible for the spill is part of their pipeline network in the United States and estimated that the pipeline was able to shuffle 50,400 gallons per hour (Hayden, 2015). More emergency crews and U.S. Coast Guard personnel arrived at the scene of the spill around 3pm and waiting for instructions to start the clean up (Brugger, 2015). First figures estimated that approximately 21,000 gallons of crude oil were able to leak out of the pipeline into the ocean and the U.S. Coast Guard confirms that the oil slick was about 4 miles wide (Flores, 2015). All in all, 105,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from the ruptured pipeline, affected wildlife, coastlines, Pacific Ocean and maritime animals alike (Hayden, 2015).

Clean-up efforts came under scrutiny as the public felt left out from helping professional crews clear the beach. (Photo Credit: Tamlorn Chase)
Clean-up efforts came under scrutiny as the public felt left out from helping professional crews clear the beach. (Photo Credit: Tamlorn Chase)

 

=== Oil Spill Response ===  

Response and emergency crews arrived at Refugio shortly after 3pm and started to collaborate with officials on the clean-up. A first step was to prohibit fishing around the contaminated area. The California Fish and Wildlife Department (Flores, 2015) closed down fishing 1 mile up and down from Refugio State Beach a standard measure in cases of oil spills. According to Flores (2015), the U.S. Coast Guard was made responsible to oversee the clean-up, with help being provided by the OEM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife/OSPR, and contractors from Patriot and Clean Seas. The first day of clean-up also drew many volunteers to Refugio Beach, with wildlife and coastal areas already highly affected by crude oil.  On Wednesday, May 20, 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown (Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., 2015) issued a State of Emergency for Santa Barbara County while more and more efforts were done to limit the impact on nature and wildlife. According to Governor Brown (Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., 2015) “This emergency proclamation cuts red tape and helps the state quickly mobilize all available resources.” With the State of Emergency set in place, clean-up crews were mobilized and other resources were made available to clean-up the oil spill. Professional crews from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) worked closely with environmental experts in order to limit the impact of crude oil on wildlife.

Volunteers used 5-gallon buckets donated by Home Depot to clean up Refugio State Beach (Photo Credit: Tamlorn Chase)
Volunteers used 5-gallon buckets donated by Home Depot to clean up Refugio State Beach (Photo Credit: Tamlorn Chase)

By Wednesday noon, more than 270 workers were active in and around Refugio State Beach for clean-up and to rescue injured and affected wildlife (Burns, 2015). According to Dermansky (2015) Plains All American Pipeline was put in charge for clean-up efforts, and by being so, the oil company is also responsible for the safety and security of clean-up crews. Unfortunately dozens of volunteers at Refugio State Beach did not have basic protection gear, and many shuffled oil with bare hands, bare feet, and no respiratory protection. Volunteers at the beach also clashed with authorities and officials when they were asked to leave the beach as so no volunteers were needed for the clean-up. According to Dermansky (2015), OSPR handed out clean-up passes to people participating in the clean-up, but none were given to volunteers. Clean-up efforts came under scrutiny on the days following the oil spill, as many people saw little to no efforts done to prevent the oil spill from expanding and from cleaning the beach from crude oil. According to Blood (2015) volunteers, angry with the lack of effort by official clean-up crews, went to Home Depot to get 5-gallon buckets and started cleaning up themselves.

“You can’t simply go to Home Depot and get some buckets. If you do that, you’re not doing it the right way,” said Natalie Phares (Blood, 2015), one of the first volunteers present at Refugio State Beach. It wasn’t until Monday, May 25, 2015 that volunteers were allowed to participate in clean-up efforts. Although volunteers from certain organizations were allowed and trained before, most of the public had to participate in so-called Hazard Safety Communication Training before being allowed to help with clean-up efforts (Christensen, 2015). On June 8, 2015 officials reported that nearly 44% of 96.5 miles of beach line in Santa Barbara and Ventura County have been cleared from crude oil (Serna & Panzar, 2015). According to Serna & Panzar (2015), authorities also confirmed that around 14,267 gallons of oil-water mix have been removed from the coastline, with sandy beaches being easier to clean-up than rocky ones.

==== Impact on the environment and wildlife ====  

Since the oil spill occurred on May 19, 2015 over 136 birds and 67 mammals have been found dead among the Santa Barbara County coastline (Serna & Panzar, 2015). The impact on the environment and wild- and ocean life in and around Refugio is massive. Although clean-up crews were quickly at the scene, reports of oily birds and other animals made the news. On the day of the spill, Cal Spill Watch OSPR tweeted that volunteers should not pick up oil covered wildlife, as it might hurt the animal even more. Pictures and stories of oily pelicans recovered from Refugio State Beach quickly made the run. On Saturday, May 23, 2015 CNN (Martinez, 2015) reported that three brown pelicans and a common dolphin were found dead, while six brown pelicans, two sea lions and one elephant seal were taking to recovery centers. These early numbers were quickly moderated and changed by officials, as the total extend of the impact on wildlife and environment is yet unknown.

The Refugio Oil Spill is not the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara County. In 1969, an oil spill hit Santa Barbara’s waterfront and covered the ocean and beach with over 3 million gallons of crude oil (Melinda, 2015). The consequences of this oil spill are still visible in some areas around Santa Barbara and the oil spill reportedly gave birth to the environmental movement in the United States.

Gaviota coast, to which Refugio State Beach belongs, is a unique ecosystem. Environmentalist mentioned that the area is a rare Mediterranean- climate region, where plants and wildlife from northern and southern regions interact (Burns, 2015). According to Burns (2015), there are only five regions like this in the world, all on the Western tip of the respective continent. The regions is so diverse and detrimental to Southern California wildlife that Phil McKenna (Burns, 2015), president of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, tried to get a national park designation for the area. Unfortunately his attempt to do so failed during the Bush administration.

The climate gives Gaviota a huge diversity in wildlife and plants. Gaviota State Park and Refugio State Beach are the nesting ground for two sensitive and endangered bird species: the California least tern and western snowy plover.

The California least tern, a sub-species of the least tern, is primarily found in the San Francisco bay area, and Southern California, including Gaviota State Park. Nesting grounds are close to the water, and the bird is considered “endangered”. This leaves the California least tern critically affected by the Refugio Oil Spill, as the bird often arrives at their nesting grounds around late April, a few weeks prior to the oil spill (Wikipedia, n.d.)

The second affected bird is the Western snowy plover, a bird often found in coastal areas in central and southern California. The bird is a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, and University of California, Santa Barbara has made numerous efforts in the area to secure breeding and nesting grounds in order to rehabilitate the snowy plover in the area. The Refugio Oil Spill and the clean-up will further interfere with the snowy plover, and it is difficult to foresee the outcome for the birds (Wikipedia, n.d.).

The Refugio Oil Spill also has effects on the maritime life in the area. Marine habitats in the area are very diverse and the most common fish are Halibut, surf perch, and Yellowtail (California State Parks, n.d.). The oil spill had immediate effects on the marine life in the area, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife brandishing a fishing ban one mile north and south of Refugio State Beach (Flores, 2015). The fishing ban was in effect for the whole region, but did not affect the Santa Barbara fishing industry and the harbor remained open to fishing vessels (Fishing Santa Barbara, 2015). Fish are usually not coming into contact with oil, as oil remains on the surface and fish is able to swim around and avoid oil. Crustaceans (lobster, crabs, shrimp) have some abilities to avoid oil and also to remove chemicals from their buddy, while Bivalve mollusks (mussels, clams, and oysters) are immobile and hence exposed to oil and chemicals (Fishing Santa Barbara, 2015). Seafood with extensively be tested for oil and chemical residue and only if no risk for consumption are found, fish will be available for restaurants and hotels.

==== Public Outcry and the Consequences ====  

The Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 sparked huge public outcry, leading to the creation of the environmentalist movement in the United States. And also the Refugio Oil Spill sparked a huge public outcry from local communities. The first one to blame was the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline, which is accused for reckless handling with their pipeline system. Since 2006, the company had 175 incidents, dumping over 16,000 gallons of oil and causing property damage of over $24 million (Sheppard, 2015). The Refugio Oil Spill adds another 105,000 gallons to the bill, plus another $62 million in clean-up and recovery costs (KEYT, 2015). This means that the average daily clean-up cost is $3 million, not added the damage to wildlife, marine habitats, and the economy.

The Refugio Oil Spill comes at a critical time in Santa Barbara County. In November 2014, voters decided to vote against Measure P and for fracking in Santa Barbara County (Peterson, 2014). The Refugio Oil Spill fuels the whole discussion and leads to more public anger against reckless oil companies along the Californian coast. Protestors not only took to the streets and beaches in Santa Barbara County, but also in Ventura County. Dozens of protestors participated in an interfaith blessing of the ocean and protest against oil drilling and fracking in Oxnard on May 30, 2015 (Therolf, 2015). In Santa Barbara, angry locals took to the Court House and to West Beach to demonstrate and protest against oil drilling in the county and shouted for more beach and wildlife protection. On May 31, 2015, hundreds of residents of Santa Barbara were expected to participate in the “Stand in the Sand” rally, which started at De La Guerra Plaza and took to West beach. Prior to the rally, “Stand in the Sand” released the following information:

“More than 1,000 residents from all over California are expect to join the “Stand in the Sand” rally outside Santa Barbara City Hall, and then march to the waterfront where they will create a human barrier to symbolically stem the tide of expanding extreme oil extraction operations in the state. Community members wearing yellow T-shirts will link arms at the waterfront, where there will also be an inflatable pipeline and electric cars.” (“Stand in the Sand”, Bacher)

And also political consequences have been announced by State legislatures and Congresswomen to Santa Barbara Lois Capps. On June 4, 2015 Lois Capps “offered an amendment to a bill before the Congress that would strengthen federal regulations by requiring automatic shutoff valves on new pipelines. That bipartisan bill passed out of the House” (Brugger, 2015). According to Brugger (2015) Capps and other Senators also “demanded answers about the safety of the pipeline from the federal oversight agency known as PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)”, but no answer has been issued yet. Overall, the political reaction was more positive, with some bills and amendments passing the State Senate’s floor.

On Tuesday, June 9, 2015 California lawmakers agreed to form a special legislative committee responsible to investigate the oil spill and the oil spill response (SCPR, 2015). The Committee is not only bound to investigate the Refugio Oil Spill, but also try to find solutions on how to avoid similar incidents. “Preliminary findings from a government report released this week revealed that the pipeline was badly corroded before it ruptured” and if confirmed, the State will file civil or criminal charges, said California Attorney General Kamala Harris (Brumfield, 2015).

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