Wildlife, pristine beaches focus of ‘aggressive’ oil spill cleanup in California

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(CNN) — Just as parents were planning what to pack in the family cooler and beach lovers in and around Santa Barbara, California, were preparing for a holiday weekend of sunning and fun, a crude oil spill has washed those plans out to sea.

Just days before the Memorial Day weekend, which typically marks the start of summer, a 24-inch pipeline ruptured along the Santa Barbara coast Tuesday, leaking the oil near Refugio State Beach, a protected state park.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday gave an initial estimate of 21,000 gallons spilled, but later revised the statement.

“That number came from Plains (All American Pipeline), the company that owns the pipeline,” Coast Guard Lt. Jonathan McCormick told CNN. “It was an early estimate that was not verified, but we should know more in the next day or two.” he said.

Officials worked to contain the oil’s effects.

“This spill is unlike ones that we’ve responded to in the past.” said Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams at a news conference. The spill originated inland, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction, but has gone to the shoreline and the water, where the Coast Guard has responsibility — thus the need for a combined response.

“Oil recovery tends to be a complicated process that involves a lot of manual labor,” Williams said. “It can be a slow process, but we want to make sure that we do it right so we can get the beaches back to their pristine condition.”

The source of the spill is still unknown, but EPA emergency response coordinator Michelle Rogow said the agency is looking at the pipeline. “The pipeline has been shut in and is currently under investigation,” she said.

Rogow asked that people refrain from working on their own to clean up the beach. “We request (you) give us the space to be able to assess and clean up this spill with the proper tools, equipment, personnel and resources that are needed,” she said.

Refugio State Beach

A thick, black, greasy, 100-foot-wide oil slick now snakes along what was the pristine coastline of Refugio State Beach for nearly 9 miles, according to Williams. “The slick goes roughly 3.7 miles east and 5.3 miles northeast,” she said.

Refugio State Beach sits below Rancho del Cielo, the Reagan Ranch, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. It’s a popular camping destination, treasured by visitors because it is on a raw, unspoiled stretch of coast. It is gorgeous and remote — not a place with a lot of commercial liquor stores and T-shirt shops. Palms trees line the shore. Crystal blue water laps the white, sandy each — all framed by verdant green hills.

It’s also an extremely popular campground. Several thousand people visit over the Memorial Day weekend. A note on the California Department of Parks and Recreation website says the beach is “closed indefinitely” due to the oil spill.

The environment

Of course, the big concern is the environment. There are shorebirds that live in the area — the snowy plover and least tern nest on sandy beaches, and the cormorant can dive deep to find food. Officials want to make sure that none of the birds or other wildlife suffer damage from the spill.

“An aggressive and effective cleanup response to the spill is underway” said Mark Crossland with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It will go on as long as necessary.

“Every effort will be made to minimize the damage to the environment, including taking care of oiled wildlife,” said Crossland.

Fishing and shellfish harvesting have been closed in Santa Barbara County until further notice.

There’s also concern about the next park down the road, El Capitan State Beach, with sandy shores and rocky tide pools. Thousands of people are expected to flock to El Capitan over the Memorial Day observance. It’s located on another unspoiled stretch of coast. Visitors go there to kayak, hike and picnic.

The pipeline is owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which said it shut down the flow of oil and is conducting an emergency response.

“Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact,”said company spokesman Darren Palmer. “We are bringing in all the resources necessary to help. Our focus remains on the safety of first responders and the environment.”

There is currently no firm estimate on the amount of oil that spilled. Palmer says there are 130 oil response workers from Plains on site and it will continue staffing as needed.

The response

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has three 65-foot vessels on the scene, collecting oil, and six boom vessels in operation, according to its Twitter feed. There are 73 people in the field collecting oil and protecting the snowy plover, a small brown-and-white shorebird.

“We are monitoring, the Coast Guard is on the scene and federal and state agencies and the operator have established an Incident Command/Unified Command,” a White House official said. Also, two inspectors with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are at the site of the spill, and “additional inspectors are scheduled to arrive today.”

“It’s still too early for numbers on the amount of oil,” said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

“I can tell you we have more than 100 people responding in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) right now. They have several ships, scooping up oil and assessing the boundaries on the water,” he said.

The cleanup

“We continue to see it’s not a question of if there is going to be an oil spill but when?” said Maggie Hall from the scene of the spill. She is an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center. “It’s a constant threat. And as you can see the cleanup is not easy.”

It is painstaking work, evidenced by several dozen workers in white, protective suits and helmets on the beach raking together balls of tar from the shore, sand and rocks and putting them into plastic bags.

The U.S. Coast Guard has seven ships in the area, laying down protective booms, skimming the water and collecting the oil to prevent it from spreading.

Plains All American Pipeline said it found the spill affected its Las Flores-to-Gaviota pipeline. It said the leaked oil reached a culvert, and it spilled into the Pacific Ocean from there. The culvert was later blocked to stop the flow.

California Oil Spill

California Oil Spill