Revisiting the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Last month, an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude oil spilled on the coastline near Santa Barbara, depositing thick black slicks over the water and pristine strips of Refugio State Beach and El Capitan. These beaches are places I frequent often, but more importantly, they are also home to an abundance of wildlife I work to protect in my job with the National Wildlife Federation.

santa barbara oil spill
A sea lion rests on a buoy in between the miles of thick oil slicks. Photo by Leigh Wyman
When I received the call about the oil spill in Santa Barbara, I jumped in the car and drove from Los Angeles to the site to monitor the situation. This was my first hands-on experience with a spill so I was unsure of what to expect. What surprised me—and perhaps shouldn’t have given the history of other oil spills—was the lack of access and information available at the site.

Upon my arrival at the Refugio State Park entrance, I was greeted by employees of the park, California Fish and Wildlife and NPS rangers. I explained my affiliation with NWF and my interests for being at the site to represent the interests of wildlife. Since I was unable to provide a press pass, I was asked to leave and warned that my presence was now known and I would be fined if I tried to enter the area.

Refugio State Park
Pelicans fly over the oil soaked beach at Refugio State Park. Photo by Tamlorn Chase
Feeling undeterred, I got back on the highway looking for entry roads a bit further north. Without fail, each time I stopped and before I could get out of my car I had police and rangers pull up behind me and ask me to leave. I was able to catch a few glimpses of agency workers in their HAZMAT suits and helmets carrying bags and buckets of oily water and sand mixtures up cliff sides.

At this point, very little knowledge was being provided about the amount of oil or the determined cause of the spill. Darren Palmer, the chairman and CEO of Plains All-American Pipeline had only conveyed the company was working to identify the reason of the leak and that an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil may have reached the water. I was able to capture some images of the buckets of oil being gathered and splattered rocks on the beaches.

santa barbara oil spill
Buckets of oil being gathered and splattered rocks from the beach. Photo by Leigh Wyman
In addition to my on land observations, I was able to go out in the field with The Santa Barbara Channel Keepers, a grassroots non-profit organization who works to protect and restore the Santa Barbara Channel and its watersheds.

On our boat ride to Refugio State Beach, we saw sea lions, seals, dolphins and even a blue whale that came so close to the boat you could nearly touch it. Santa Barbara has natural oil seeps that can be seen and smelled on most days. However, as we entered the protected marine space just off the Gaviota Coast it became clear that we were not seeing typical natural seeps.

Miles of thick oil slicks drifted along the marine conservation area. The oil smothered areas of kelp forest that floated on the surface and coated the side of the boat. I found it amazing that we were amongst this huge slick in a marine protected space, and yet no boats were present doing any cleanup. Meanwhile, scattered along the coastline in patches were agency workers in white suits slowly moving about with their trash bags and cleanup tools.

Program director of the organization, Ben Pitterle was the captain of the boat for the day and his goal for the excursion was to drop the group’s underwater camera at Refugio and determine whether oil had accumulated on the seafloor.

Seafloor assessment and cleanup is not usually on the agenda after an oil spill, but some scientists believe that it should be. If oil has gathered on the seafloor then this information is critical for totaling the damage inflicted by the spill on marine life and the environment. Nonetheless, non-profits’ and universities’ requests to survey the ocean floor around Refugio have been continuously rejected, illuminating the confused bureaucracy around the official clean-up effort.

Crude oil from the spill
Crude oil from the spill splatters the rocks on the shore. Photo by Tamlorn Chase
Just east of Refugio—along an undeveloped stretch of shore where celebrity Brad Pitt’s mansion is located—armed wardens from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife approached our boat and told us that we needed to leave the area due to closure for the cleanup. The wardens were friendly, and after 45 minutes they determined we did not have permission to conduct the research and needed to vacate.

This was an interesting development because just an hour before, Ben had been on a conference call held by authorities for non-profits waiting for the go ahead to be involved. Top officials from Unified Command—the group in charge of the cleanup, which includes state and national agencies and Plains All American Pipeline —said they wanted to work with non-profits and were made aware that we were on the boat headed to the site.

“What we were hearing, at least from the top of the command chain, is that they’re trying to move in the direction of coordination and collaboration,” Ben told me. It was obvious as we turned the boat around that this collaboration had not yet made its way down the chain of command.

The logistics of this operation are obviously huge and complex, but it was clear that there was a serious disconnect in communication. The situation was frustrating for Ben because his organization along with researchers at the university, have special expertise and resources they can bring to the table. This is the marine area that they work in everyday and it was simply unfortunate that their resources were not being utilized.

Clean up costs for the spill have already exceeded $60 million to date, and are estimated at $3 million a day. And wildlife continues to be impacted, as the San Jose Mercury News recently reported, “Wildlife experts have recovered 161 dead birds and 87 dead marine mammals, mostly sea lions. Another 106 animals were found coated in oil and are undergoing rehabilitation.”

Gaviota coast
Miles of oil slick in the protected marine area off the Gaviota coast. Photo by Leigh Wyman
This oil spill is yet another wake-up call that we are putting wildlife at risk due to the negligent and inexcusable oversight of oil pipelines. Federal regulators have now disclosed that the pipe had “extensive external corrosion” concluding sever metal deterioration. These findings conflict with the report made on May 5th and the inspections conducted on that area of pipe for operator Plains All American Pipeline. This is another example of pipeline infrastructure failing, despite industry reports and promises that pipelines are safe and well monitored. It is apparent that federal regulations of pipelines are entirely inadequate and basic monitoring and safety equipment are not significantly required.

Safety regulations must be more strict and transparent ensuring that all pipelines are state of the art, monitored frequently and at the first sign of any issues are taken off the line and fixed immediately. Nevertheless, until we transition to clean wildlife friendly energy sources we will never be free of the risk of pipeline spills.

The age of fossil fuels must to come to an end. We need to make the transition to clean energy now, and put policies in place that reduce oil demand and speed the transitions to fossil fuel free energy sources. Let’s use what remains of the fossil fuel era to build the infrastructure, develop the technologies, and create the materials necessary for our complete transition to clean energy sources that do not leave wildlife at continuous danger.

In addition, it is essential that communities are well trained and well informed regarding the risks. There is a fine line between safety measures in an emergency and shielding view from the public. It was clear that this cleanup effort, like so many others, was dancing along that line. Trying to hide the extent of the damage to wildlife and ecosystems does not serve the public good, but are the oil companies interested in advancing that?

As NWF’s Senior Council Jim Murphy observed, “Now that they are being watched, Big Oil wants to hide the ball.”

Published: June 25, 2015