Toxic shock: California’s nightmare oil spill

The Golden State has been stained black. A four-mile slick across the Pacific Ocean marked the spreading of a devastating oil spill, which erupted on May 19 from a ruptured pipeline on Santa Barbara’s Gaviota Coast. The spewage dumped more than 105,000 gallons along the coast, sickening wildlife and prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on May 20. Now, as in the case of so many prior disasters, environmentalists and everyone affected by this are trying to get through what some have called a “nightmare scenario.”

The company that operates the pipeline is Plains All American, which had been experiencing what its CEO Darren Palmer called “mechanical issues” prior to the leak. The pipeline was part of a larger network that delivers crude from Exxon Mobil’s processing facility in Las Flores Canyon to Plains’ pump station in Gaviota. The Las Flores site was originally owned by the Pacific Offshore Pipeline Company before being sold to Exxon Mobil in 1998. The leak was stopped the same day it began, at around 3 p.m., said Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrea Anderson, but the damage is done. For Plains All American, this is nothing new; the Houston-based company has done such damage on many previous occasions, including a 10,000-gallon spill in California’s Atwater Village in 2014, and in total, 175 spills throughout the U.S. since 2006.

“This company’s disturbing record highlights oil production’s toxic threat to California’s coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program director. “Every new oil project increases the risk of fouled beaches and oil-soaked sea life. If we’ve learned anything over the past 50 years, it’s that coastal oil production remains inherently dangerous to wildlife, local communities, and the health of the planet.”

So far, that wildlife seems to have taken the brunt of the spill’s impact, in an ordeal that is chillingly reminiscent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The following day, pelicans were found coated in oil, with one dead and eight survivors sent to rehabilitation centers. The problem with those centers, which are filled with dedicated volunteers, is what it has always been: after the birds are cleaned and released into the wild, they tend to fly right back into the oil-plagued waters. Later, on May 22, the body of a dolphin turned up on Santa Barbara harbor. That same day, two surviving sea lions and an elephant seal, all oil-drenched, joined their feathered friends at the recovery centers.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center, said there are fears that the oil slick will spread further into the especially sensitive Santa Barbara Channel, which is “one of the most biologically rich places on the planet. Right now we have migratory whales, including endangered humpbacks and blue whales. We also have gray whales migrating back from Baja California to Alaska, and they come closer to shore. We also have a lot of very rare seabirds and other coastal endangered species. It’s a very, very sensitive, important place and we don’t know what the eventual harm will be.”

The shores themselves were also blackened, with two public beaches – the Refugio and El Capitan – being closed at least until June 4.

Plains All America maintains its declaration of “mechanical issues” relating to the pipeline, which was built in 1991, so people still don’t know the precise cause of the rupture.

“To see this level of spill into such a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch,” said Owen Bailey, the Environmental Defense Center’s executive director. “These waters are known as the Galapagos of North America, with numerous species of endangered whales migrating through marine protected areas and off the iconic and beloved Gaviota Coast.”

Among the volunteers that helped in animal rescue efforts and oil cleanup was the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), a not-for-profit group that includes veterinarians, biologists, and wildlife rehabilitators. One member, Christine Fiorello, former assistant professor of zoological medicine at the University of Georgia, said, “Our goal is to get these birds stabilized, to get them warm, hydrated, comfortable, and get them washed as soon as possible and then rehabilitated so they can go back home.”

Along with OWCN members and other volunteers, crews working with the U.S. Coast Guard have been cleaning up the mess, as well as contract workers for Plains All American. The crude is currently only thought to be 20 percent recovered. Workers in hazardous material suits have sopped up thick gobs of crude over nine miles along the California coast, while cleanup vessels gathered, skimmed, and vacuumed oil off the surface of the ocean. The process is long and imperfect, and there is no estimate on when recovery efforts will reach 100 percent. If the Deepwater Horizon fiasco is any indication, the cleanup will never truly be complete, as the effects of a spill of this magnitude often persist for decades afterward.

If activists wish to analyze this spill’s potential impact, however, they need look no further for an example than the 1969 disaster that struck the Santa Barbara Channel itself, which is currently in danger once again as oil slick encroaches on that area. The notorious spill of ’69 is ranked the third largest in history, and has stood as a cautionary tale that has been all but ignored by profit-driven oil companies large and small, including Plains All America. That spill unleashed somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of crude into the channel and surrounding beaches over the course of ten days, killing at least 3,500 birds and leaving an unknowable level of residual environmental degradation in its wake.

Now, many fear that history is repeating itself, and in the very same vicinity. And once again, a greedy corporation is at fault.

“This spill is so visible,” said Kassie Siegel, climate law institute director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Joshua Tree, California. “But so much of the damage that oil companies do is harder to see. This is a tragic reminder that oil production is dirty and dangerous from start to finish.”

Photo: Volunteers at the International Bird Rescue center in Los Angeles help clean off an oil-drenched pelican.   |  Chris Carlson/AP




Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music review channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel, as well as a self-help book and several digital comics.