Environment & Science

Response by owner of broken oil pipeline faces scrutiny

Workers clean oil from the rocks and beach at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 22, 2015.  A section of pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the water has been removed for analysis.
Workers clean oil from the rocks and beach at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 22, 2015. A section of pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the water has been removed for analysis.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Firefighters, emergency workers and officials from Plains All American Pipeline had gathered last week at a fire station preparing to train for the worst — an oil spill — when a 911 call came in reporting a noxious smell in the air at a nearby beach.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department rushed to the shoreline, where they discovered oil flowing across a beach and into the Pacific. What was supposed to be a drill turned real.

"It was very black. You couldn't see the sand anymore," Fire Capt. Craig Vanderzwaag recalled after arriving at the scene of the leak shortly after noon May 19. "You could see rolling waves with black oil lapping up on the beach."

By the time the firefighters traced the source of the spill to a ruptured underground pipeline, thousands of gallons of crude oil had escaped. As oil fouled the sand and water, firefighters wielding shovels and axes moved dirt and rocks to prevent more oil from spilling into a drainage ditch, but the leak quickly spread to 9 miles of ocean.

What was done that day to stop the spill and protect some of the most fabled coastline in California has come under scrutiny, as officials continue cleaning up the mess created by a leak estimated at up to 101,000 gallons and trying to figure out what went wrong.

In a letter Thursday to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California labeled the response to the spill "insufficient." They questioned why the line lacked an automatic shut-off valve, and whether some workers were left on the sidelines while the leak spread.

"We need answers about why this happened, why the response was insufficient and what can be done to prevent another tragic spill like this from happening in the future," said the letter, which was also signed by Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, a fellow Democrat.

"We are concerned that insufficient preparation may have slowed down the response effort," they wrote.

Among their concerns: According to disclosures so far, it took Plains about 90 minutes after the oil spill was confirmed to notify the National Response Center, a clearinghouse for reports of hazardous material releases that coordinates responses. Additionally, Plains had reported problems with the line earlier that day.

Linda Krop, chief counsel of Environmental Defense Center, said she was at the shore until 10 p.m. the day of the spill and nothing was being done to prevent crude that had fouled the beach and rocks from washing into the sea.

"The response was extremely tardy that allowed oil to get in the water where it will never be fully recovered," Krop said. "Waves were washing oil off the beach and off the rocks and nothing was being done."

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Plains spokesman Patrick Hodgins did not directly address the company's initial response.

"None of us here today want to have this unfortunate event," Hodgins said. "We're going to address the issue, we're going to investigate it with the federal regulators, we're going to find out what happened and we're going to make it right."

Earlier Thursday, officials said the ruptured section of pipeline had been removed for analysis. Artealia Gilliard of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the section will be wrapped in protective insulation before it is sent to a laboratory in Ohio for metallurgical testing.

— Associated Press Writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.