Environment & Science

Oil spill: Records tally involved company's accidents (updated)

Officials walk along an the oil-covered beach north of Goleta, California. Initial estimates put the spill at about 21,000 gallons.
Officials walk along an the oil-covered beach north of Goleta, California. Initial estimates put the spill at about 21,000 gallons.
David McNew/Getty Images

An oil spill was detected on Tuesday at Refugio State Beach, which is located near Santa Barbara. An estimated 21,000 gallons of oil had spread nine miles out to sea, officials say. The pipeline, which has been shut off, belongs to Plains All American Pipeline. The company has issued an apology and is working with state and local authorities. Clean-up efforts are underway. 


5:20 p.m.: Environmentalists rally around Santa Barbara oil spill

The latest oil spill on the Santa Barbara coast is just a drop in the bucket compared with the area's catastrophic blowout in 1969, but it has become a new rallying point for environmentalists in their battle against drilling and fossil fuels.

No one expects damage on the order of the '69 disaster, which helped give rise to the modern environmental movement and led to passage of some of the nation's most important environmental laws.

Nevertheless, the new spill from a ruptured underground pipe is being held up as another reason to oppose such things as fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas, the moving of crude by train, and drilling in far-flung places.

"What we see from this event is that the industry still poses enormous risks to an area we cannot afford to lose," said Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The timing of the leak — days after a federal agency approved Shell's plan for drilling in the Arctic, and while the Obama administration considers opening the Atlantic to exploration — could work to the advantage of environmental groups.

Closer to home, it could galvanize opposition to plans for new drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel, where Union Oil's oil platform blew out 46 years ago, spewing an estimated 3 million gallons of crude along 30 miles of coast. Some 9,000 birds died.

Tuesday's spill involved an estimated 105,000 gallons of crude; about 21,000 is believed to have made it to the sea and split into slicks that stretched 9 miles along the same stretch of coast fouled in 1969. A 23-mile by 7-mile area was closed to fishing.

As of Thursday, more than 8,300 gallons had been raked, skimmed and vacuumed up, officials said.

The thick, powerful-smelling crude coated rocks and sand, but only five oil-coated pelicans and one juvenile sea lion had been rescued.

There was no estimate on the cost of the cleanup or how long it might take.

The 24-inch pipe, built in 1987, had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to its operator, Plains All American Pipeline. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.

The 1969 spill was a watershed event in the area and also for the nation.

Artist Bud Bottoms remembers yelling, "We've got to get oil out!" thus coining what became a rallying cry and the name of the organization he founded, Get Oil Out!, or GOO.

"We made so much noise about the oil spill in our pristine Santa Barbara coast that it was called the 'environmental shot heard 'round the world,'" Bottoms said.

The stench was terrible, and he remembers people crying at the sight of the beaches. Inmates were brought in to help spread bales of straw to sop up the mess.

His group helped gather 200,000 signatures to get the oil rigs removed off the coast. That never happened, but over the next few years significant legislation was passed to protect endangered species and the air and water. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.

Sean Anderson, environmental professor at California State University, Channel Islands, said he doesn't think this week's spill will have any effect on policies or regulations, mostly because there are so many already in place.

"The 1969 spill created a panoply of federal, state and county level regulations and laws," he said. "From that watershed event, a huge array of policy and procedural tools emerged."

Tupper Hull, a spokesman with Western States Petroleum Association, said the industry expects a certain amount of blowback but not necessarily new regulation.

"It's no secret that there are groups that have an agenda to curtail energy production in California," Hull said. "They will no doubt reference this tragedy in their advocacy. We will respond with a measured, thoughtful response that will make full use of facts."

Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate more than 6,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines in at least 20 states, according to company reports. Those companies handle over 4 million barrels of crude and other liquid fuels daily.

Since 2006, the companies have reported 199 accidents and been subject to 22 enforcement actions by federal regulators. The accidents resulted in a combined 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damage topping $25 million.

Corrosion was determined to be the cause in more than 80 of those accidents. Failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 70 times.

Enforcement cases against the companies resulted in the collection of $154,000 in penalties, according to a federal database.

Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety for Plains All American, said the company has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2007 on maintenance, repair and enhancement of its equipment.

"Safety is not just a priority; it's actually a core value at Plains," he said.

One local group that arose out of the 1969 disaster was the local Environmental Defense Center, which is now trying to block certain drilling projects.

"It doesn't matter how many laws you have on the books or how many regulations you have and it doesn't matter what advancements are made in technology," said Linda Krop, the group's chief counsel. "Oil development is risky business and will result in oil spills."

— Brian Melley and Christopher Weber, The Associated Press. John Antczak in Los Angeles and Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this story.

11:50 a.m.: Records tally accidents involving company in oil spill

Reports filed with federal regulators show that Plains All American, the company involved in the California oil spill, and its subsidiaries operate more than 6,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines in at least 20 states.

Those companies handle over 4 million barrels of crude and other liquid fuels daily.

Since 2006, the companies have reported 199 accidents and been subject to 22 enforcement actions by federal regulators. The accidents resulted in a combined 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damages topping $25 million.

A federal database shows enforcement cases against the companies resulted in collection of $154,000 in penalties, for violations including not doing enough to prevent pipeline corrosion, failing to inspect valves frequently enough and not preventing lines from being over-pressured.

The company says safety is a core value.

— The Associated Press

Update May 21, 7:19 a.m.: Beach closure now stretched to El Capitan State Beach

Efforts to clean up an oil spill along the Santa Barbara County coast has turned into a 24-hour-a-day operation. Investigators say more than 6,000 gallons of oil that seeped out of a broken pipeline has been raked, skimmed, and vacuumed.  

They also say as many as 21,000 gallons may have reached the water.

"The decision was made to extend our closure to El Capitan State Beach," Eric Hjelstrom, with the California State Parks Department, said Wednesday in a news conference. "The department is in the process of notifying all of our reservation holders to let them know of this closure. At this point that closure is until next Thursday."

The Santa Barbara County district attorney says her office and the state attorney general are investigating the spill for possible criminal prosecution or civil liability.

— KPCC Staff

Update 7:30 p.m.: Gov. Brown declares state of emergency in Santa Barbara County

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday issued an emergency proclamation for Santa Barbara County in response to the oil spill that a day earlier may have spilled upwards of 105,000 gallons of crude off the the coast of Refugio State Beach.

“This emergency proclamation cuts red tape and helps the state quickly mobilize all available resources,” Gov. Brown said in a statement. “We will do everything necessary to protect California’s coastline.”

The declaration frees up state monies and resources to help clean up the site of the spill.

State and local environmental agencies were already working together since Tuesday in the cleanup effort.

At one point, the pipe leak was releasing 84,000 gallons of crude a minute, according to officials. By Wednesday, an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil had spread 9 miles out to sea.

Officials with Plains All American Pipeline, the company that owns the broken pipe, said that, in the worst case scenario, up to 105,000 gallons of oil could have been released.

The company's CEO on Wednesday evening said he regretted the incident and apologized to those affected by the spill, The Associated Press reported.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her office was investigating the spill, along with the state attorney general, and looking into possible criminal or civil charges, according to The Associated Press.

Tyler Hayden of the Santa Barbara Independent told KPCC he believed the main beaches in the area would be closed for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

— KPCC Staff

Update 3:15 p.m.: Up to 105,000 gallons of oil spilled, says pipeline owner

The company that owns a pipeline that spewed oil into California coastal waters says that under the worst-case scenario, up to 105,000 gallons of crude leaked in the spill.

How much of that ended up in the ocean remains unclear.

The Plains All American Pipeline company says in a statement the current estimate remains 21,000 gallons, but it says that figure is under investigation.

The spill happened Tuesday about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara.

The broken onshore pipeline spewed oil down a storm drain and into the Pacific Ocean for several hours before it was shut off. The spill created two slicks that span about 9 miles.

— The Associated Press

12:22 p.m.: Oil spill from California coast at least 9 miles long

The oil spill at Refugio State Beach is now estimated to have spread at least 9 miles, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Investigators are looking into what caused the oil release and are inspecting the pipeline, which has been shut off. Officials say the next steps will be to asses the contamination from the pipeline site to the shoreline.  

Darren Palmer with the Plains All American Pipeline said in a news conference the 24-inch pipeline was built in 1991 and pumps about 2,000 barrels of oil an hour. He said there are no signs of weakness in the pipeline, and it's the first incident involving this pipeline.

"We're bringing all our resources at our disposal to respond," Palmer said. 

There was no firm estimate of how many gallons were spilled.

"This oil spill effects all of us in the county," Chair of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors Janet Wolf said. "This is a disaster."

Campers at Refugio State Beach have been evacuated and the beach will remain closed through the weekend. 

Officials caution the public not to pick up injured animals and recommend reporting sightings to the Wildlife Care Network at 877-823-6926.

- Brian De Los Santos, KPCC

10:57 a.m.: Cleanup crews begin working on oil spill 

Cleanup crews fanned out Wednesday along a stretch of scenic California coastline stained by thousands of gallons of crude oil that spilled from broken pipe and flowed into the Pacific Ocean.

Workers from an environmental cleanup company strapped on boots and gloves and picked up shovels and rakes to tackle the gobs of goo stuck to sand and rocks along Refugio State Beach on the southern Santa Barbara County coast.

The accident happened on the same stretch of coastline as a 1969 spill, which was the largest ever in U.S. waters at the time and is credited with giving rise to the American environmental movement.

Members of the International Bird Rescue organization were also on hand Wednesday to clean any birds that become covered with oil, though none were immediately spotted in the calm seas that produced only small waves.

The broken onshore pipeline spewed oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours Tuesday before it was shut off, creating a slick some 4 miles long about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara.

Initial estimates put the spill at about 21,000 gallons, but that figure would likely change after a Wednesday morning flyover gave a better sense of the scope, U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Jennifer Williams said.

Authorities responding to reports of a foul smell near Refugio State Beach around noon found a half-mile slick in the ocean, county fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said. They traced the oil to the pipeline that spilled into a culvert running under a highway and into a storm drain that empties into the ocean.

The 24-inch pipeline was shut off about three hours later. It's owned by Plains All American Pipeline, which said it stopped the flow of oil and blocked the culvert.

"Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact," the company said in a statement.

After the spill, boats from the nonprofit collective Clean Seas helped with cleanup but were having trouble because much of the oil was close to the shore, Williams said. About 850 gallons of oil have been recovered from the water, she said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed fishing and shellfish harvesting for a mile east and west of the beach.

The area is home to offshore oil rigs, and small amounts of tar from natural seepage regularly show up on beaches. In 1969, several hundred thousand gallons spilled from a blowout on an oil platform and thousands of seabirds and many marine mammals were killed.

The oil industry brings risks, said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Santa Barbara learned that lesson over 40 years ago when offshore drilling led to disaster," he said in a statement.

The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center said having it occur in "a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch." The group expressed special concern for the many whale species that migrate through the area.

"Oil spills are part of the ugly cost of fossil fuel development, made even worse by aging domestic infrastructure," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

It was unclear how long the cleanup would take and whether Refugio beach and other areas would be reopened in time for Memorial Day weekend

- Christopher Webber, AP

This story has been updated.