Workers Clean Up Santa Barbara Oil Spill by Hand

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Along a stretch of beach coated in oil after last month’s pipeline rupture off the Santa Barbara coast, workers in hard hats and protective suits use wire brushes and putty knives to remove tar from cobblestones and cliff faces.

What’s the Problem?

June 21, 2015 – The grueling task at Refugio State Beach marks a new front in the cleanup effort after an underground pipeline leaked May 21, releasing up to 101,000 gallons of crude oil, about 21,000 gallons of which poured into a storm drain, coated the beach and washed out to sea. Because the area is home to endangered marine life, a decision was made early on to clean sullied beaches the old-fashioned way by using hand tools instead of heavy equipment or chemical agents.

The environmental toll from the largest oil spill off the California coast since 1969 is still being tallied. Slow progress has been made in containing the slick in the ocean and removing traces of oil from sandy beaches.

“It’s a very labor-intensive process, but that’s where we’re at now,” said Carl Childs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the agencies involved in the cleanup.

There’s still no timetable for when the cleanup will be complete. To date, the effort has cost more than $65 million, which is being paid for Plains All American Pipeline, the company that operates the ruptured pipe.

The spill blackened a portion of the Santa Barbara County coast that was also polluted during the 1969 offshore oil-platform blowout that leaked 3 million gallons of crude, killing thousands of birds and marine animals.

Cleanup techniques have evolved since the earlier spill that helped usher in a new era of environmental conservation. In 1969, crews used straw to extract oil from sandy beaches. This approach was later abandoned because straw is hard to pick up and removing too much sand can harm a beach.

In this year’s spill, workers shoveled tar balls and oil-flecked sand into plastic bags for disposal. They had to be careful not to disturb populations of western snowy plovers, endangered shorebirds in the middle of their breeding season.

“We’re more concerned about the impact of the cleanup doing more injury than the oil did originally,” said Kim McCleneghan of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), who aided in the cleanup effort of both spills.

Communication Problems Delayed Spill Response

June 25 – In the critical moments after last month’s oil spill, Plains was unable to contact workers to get data it required to notify the National Response Center, according to records released this week. Workers near the ruptured pipe were dealing with “immediate demands and distractions” at the time of the break and were unable to be reached by company personnel in Bakersfield, CA, the records said.


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