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California Governor declares Santa Barbara oil spill an emergency

22 May 2015

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on May 20 after thousands of gallons of crude oil leaked from a pipeline into the Pacific Ocean, polluting beaches and endangering wildlife. The worst affected areas are the Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches.

Stock image
Stock image

"This emergency proclamation cuts red tape and helps the state quickly mobilize all available resources," Brown said. "We will do everything necessary to protect California's coastline."

More than 105,000 gallons of crude oil is thought to have leaked from the Las Flores-to-Gaviota underground pipeline, according to owner/operator Plains All American Pipeline. The pipeline was installed in 1987.

Crews continued to clean beaches and coastal waters, and officials reported that the leak killed an undisclosed number of lobsters, kelp bass and marine invertebrates. Six oil-soaked pelicans and one young sea lion were being rehabilitated, officials said. 
The cleanup could last months, officials said. 

More than 100 people have responded to the emergency from the California Office of Emergency Services, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also was on the scene with nine vessels collecting oil and containing the spill. More than 70 of its people were in the field collecting oil and protecting shorebirds.

Plains spokesman Rick McMichael said the pipeline was carrying 1,300 barrels an hour, below its maximum capacity of 2,000 barrels an hour. An estimated 21,000 gallons of crude had gone into the Pacific Ocean - the rest was spilled on land. As of May 21, seventeen vessels had skimmed 9,500 gallons of oily water from the ocean, McMichael said. 

According to CNN, Plains is among the worst violators listed by the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration and is the fifth worst out of more than 1,700 operators in reporting safety and maintenance infractions, the federal agency said. The company has 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006.

The US Environmental Protection Agency said Plains violated federal environmental violations 10 times between 2004 and 2007, when about 273,420 gallons of crude oil were discharged into waters or shorelines in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. Most of the spills were caused by corrosion on pipe, the EPA said.

The oil company agreed to pay a $3.25 million civil penalty and spend $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles of crude oil pipeline operated in the United States, the EPA said in 2010.

When asked about the firm's regulatory record, McMichael said the company reports every incident - even those it's not required to document - and two-thirds of them involved five or fewer gallons.

Pat Hutchins, the company's senior director of safety, said Plains has been committing money to safety improvements for the past seven years.

This is not the first oil spill at Santa Barbara. About three million gallons of oil spewed from a Union Oil drilling rig five miles off the coast - at the time the nation's worst offshore oil disaster. 

The 1969 disaster was so catastrophic and the media coverage so extensive that it gave birth to the environmental movement, a host of regulations against the oil and gas industry, and a new commission to protect California's coast.

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