Oil spill expert: environmental damage from Ventura oil spill minimal

Sean Anderson, associate professor of environmental science and resource management at Cal State Channel Islands, samples crude oil from Hall Canyon outside Ventura on June 23, 2016 following an oil spill.
Sean Anderson, associate professor of environmental science and resource management at Cal State Channel Islands, samples crude oil from Hall Canyon outside Ventura on June 23, 2016 following an oil spill.

It could have been worse. That’s the verdict on the Hall Canyon oil spill, which leaked nearly 30,000 gallons of crude oil into an arroyo outside Ventura on June 23, from an ecologist who studies the impact of oil spills on the California Coast.

Dr. Sean Anderson, associate professor of environmental science and resource management at Cal State Channel Islands, woke up on Thursday morning to news that the oil spill might reach the beach. Anderson, who spent the last year studying the impact of last May’s Refugio oil spill, which  caused over 140,000 gallons of crude oil to wash into the ocean along the Santa Barbara coast, rushed to the shore.

Having seen tar balls wash up for weeks following the Refugio spill, Anderson was worried about the impact of another oil spill on the area. He specifically worried about the effect on sand crabs, which are the a major source of food for birds and fish.

But when he arrived at the beach there was no oil, and he quickly realized that clean up crews had contained the spill well upstream.

As Anderson began moving up Hall Canyon towards the site of the pipeline spill, he passed a catchment basin where the oil had pooled. He feels lucky the oil didn’t go any further.

“The fear was it was going to go underground and get into the storm drain system,” which would have been another path for the oil to make it to the ocean.

Above the catchment basin, the dry arroyo was black with crude oil, two to three feet wide and about a foot deep. The steep canyon walls contained the oil to the dry arroyo, limiting its impact on the environment. The length of the spill was about two-thirds of a mile. 

“That channel was dry, there were no fish, no invertebrates,” he said. “The main environmental impact, other than the smells and the odors, is probably to the wildlife corridor. But in the grand scheme of things that’s relatively minor.”

What’s more worrisome for Anderson is the timing of the Hall Canyon spill, just over a year after the Refugio Spill and just eight months after the enormous natural gas leak at Porter ranch.

Its proximity to those incidents, especially the Refugio spill, drew much of the media attention to the Hall Canyon spill, said Daniel Berlant, public information officer with CalFire, which regulates intrastate pipelines in California.

The Refugio spill “did a lot more destruction, there was a lot more damage. It took a lot longer not only to stop the leak but also to clean it up, where as this one was not to that magnitude,” Berlant said.

He added that his comments weren't meant to diminish the impact of the Hall Canyon spill and that his agency doesn’t want to see any spills, period.

CalFire doesn’t yet know what caused the Hall Canyon spill, although a spokesperson with Crimson Pipeline said it likely came from a newly-installed valve on an underground pipeline. Crimson didn't detect the spill because the pipe was undergoing maintenance. Instead, a neighbor reported it around 5:30 a.m. on June 23. Crimson shut the line down once it learned of the spill. ​

The pipeline was scheduled to be inspected by state officials later this year and was last inspected in 2009. Under state law, pipelines must be inspected every five years.

In the interim, the company paid to have independent inspections done with a “smart pig" --  a long, cylindrical tool that moves along the inside of a pipeline and detects corrosion, cracks and other defects before they can cause leaks.

Crimson last had a “smart pig” inspection in July 2015. Berlant said as part of CalFire’s investigation into the June 23 spill, the agency is reviewing those inspection records.

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