On May 19, 2015, an underground oil pipeline off the coast of Santa Barbara County ruptured, leaking thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. The spill threatens to cause major damage to fishery habitats, local businesses and marine wildlife populations.
How Did the Spill Happen?
A 24-inch pipeline known as ‘Line 901’ that delivers crude oil from offshore drilling rigs to refineries inland ruptured and leaked for hours before firefighters were able to stop the flow, according to ABC News. Approximately 101,000 gallons of oil leaked out, including an estimated 21,000 gallons that were sucked into a storm drain and pushed out to sea.
The oil slick stretched 9 miles along the coast, prompting an indefinite fishing ban in a 138-square-mile zone stretching from Canada de Alegria near Gaviota State Beach to Coal Oil Point in Isla Vista, and the closure of Refugio and El Captain State Beaches. The spill is the worst to hit the Santa Barbara coastline since 1969, when over 4.2 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean, killing thousands of seabirds and other animals.
More than 1,400 cleanup workers have recovered 11,600 gallons of oily water to date, according to the Los Angeles Times. At least 22 birds and 14 marine mammals have died since the accident, and another 46 birds and 30 marine animals have been rescued. The clean up effort has been criticized by environmentalists and lawmakers who questioned whether enough was done early on to control the spill.
In a letter to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein called the clean up efforts “insufficient.” The senators questioned why it took Plains All American Pipeline, the company that owns the ruptured pipe, about 90 minutes after the spill to alert a clearinghouse that coordinates agencies in the event of an emergency. They also questioned whether enough workers were mobilized to aid in the cleanup.
Oil Spill Cleanup Cost Tops $62 Million
The cost of cleaning up last month’s oil spill has reached $62 million, or about $3 million per day, according to The Associated Press. Wildlife experts said at least 161 dead birds and 87 dead marine mammals have been recovered, and another 106 animals were found coated in oil and are being treated.
“The responsibility here is to get it cleaned up as quickly as possible,” said Plains’ on-scene coordinator Patrick Hodgins.
Ruptured Pipeline was Corroded: Report
Corrosion had degraded nearly half of the metal wall of the ruptured pipeline, PHSMA announced on June 3. The agency said an inspection by third-party metallurgists revealed “extensive” external corrosion and metal loss of more than 45% of the pipe wall’s thickness around the area where the break occurred, according to the LA Times. Investigators also found a 6 inch opening along the bottom of the pipe where it broke.
The area where the pipeline ruptured had been repaired at least 3 times since its last comprehensive internal inspection in July 2012, according to PHSMA. Though the section that failed had lost nearly half of its wall thickness, other sections had corroded even more. Inspectors found external corrosion and metal loss ranging from 54% to 74% at 3 other spots, regulators said.
“These troubling findings suggest this pipeline was an accident waiting to happen,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Pipeline Operator’s Poor Safety Record
Plains All American Pipeline has had a long history of environmental violations in the U.S. and Canada, news reports and EPA records show. Last year, a Plains pipeline ruptured in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village, spilling nearly 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the city’s streets. Toxic fumes were reported in the area for days after the spill.
The company has been cited for at least 10 oil spills that violated the Clean Water Act in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. In 2010, Plains settled with the EPA after agreeing to pay $3.2 million in civil penalties.
The Santa Barbara coastline is home to a unique ecosystem which is created by the mixing of cold and warm waters. This is a rare occurrence that results in many unusual species of crab, snail, fish and sea lions, as well as more than 14,000 acres of kelp forests.
Oil sticks to kelp, and when the animals eat it, they ingest toxic compounds that can be deadly. Some animals are killed instantly while others suffer from internal injuries or long-term health effects.
A study on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, found unusually high rates of miscarriages, lung disease and immune system defects among local populations nearly 5 years after the accident. The long-term effects the Santa Barbara spill will have on the local ecosystem are yet to be seen, but the outlook is bleak.
Investigators Eyeing Potential Criminal Charges
After last month’s spill, investigators have been working round the clock to determine the cause of the rupture and whether civil or criminal charges will be filed, according to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “We’re going to go where the evidence takes us,” Harris told reporters, saying she was working with Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s office to determine what exactly went wrong — and why.
Photos Reveal ‘Extensive Corrosion’ in Ruptured Pipeline
Photographs of the pipeline that spilled oil off the Santa Barbara coast last month show extensive corrosion and provide clues about the cause of the rupture, according to the LA Times. Corrosion seen around the crack, combined with wear inside the pipe likely led to the rupture after a pressure spike when the operator restarted pumps on May 19.
Nature Reserve Polluted
Last month’s oil spill has killed hundreds of birds and marine mammals, and polluted miles of beaches, including a nature reserve owned by the University of California called Coal Oil Point Reserve. Among other things, the spill has affected federally threatened western snowy plover birds during mating season.
“We need to remove that oil because the plovers are getting tar on their wings and hair,” said Cristina Sandoval, director of Coal Oil Point. “Almost all of them have little black boots because their feet are black from oil.”
Oil Spill Class Action
A class action lawsuit has been filed against Plains All American Pipeline on behalf of Santa Barbara fisherman Stace Cheverez. According to the complaint, the spill has prevented Cheverez from operating 2 commercial boats he uses to catch grass rockfish near shore. Over the long-term, the suit alleges the spill will result in lost profits from the damage caused to the fisheries, as well as the damaged reputation of fish from the spill area. The complaint seeks class action status on behalf of fisherman and businesses who suffered economic damages as a result of the spill.
June 26 – Another class action lawsuit was filed against Plains this week on behalf of over 3,000 property owners from Point Conception to the Mexico border. The complaint alleges that the ruptured pipeline lacked an automatic shut-off system which could have prevented the spill.
Pipeline Incidents a Daily Occurrence: PHMSA
In 2014, there were at least 704 oil and gas pipeline incidents involving leaks or emergency shutdowns to avoid accidents, according to PHMSA data. That averages nearly 2 spills per day in the U.S.
Last year’s pipeline incidents resulted in 19 deaths, 96 injuries and over $300 million in reported property damage, PHMSA says. Since 1995, there have been more than 10,000 incidents, 371 deaths, 1,398 injuries and in excess of $6 billion in reported property damage.
El Capitan State Beach to Reopen
El Capitan State Beach is set to reopen June 26, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The popular beach is about 3 miles east of where the pipeline ruptured last month. Refugio State Beach, which is adjacent to where the oil spill occurred, will remain closed throughout at least the 1st week of July.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has allowed fishing to resume across 138 square miles off the Santa Barbara coast that was closed after last month’s oil spill, according to CBS News. Officials decided to reopen the area following word from scientists that eating fish caught in those waters poses no threat to human health.