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Jackson, Williams Introduce Legislation in Wake of Refugio Oil Spill

The bills would create programs for immediate spill response, require automatic shutoff systems in pipelines and shift oversight back to the Office of the State Fire Marshal

Refugio State Beach is now a staging area for oil spill response efforts. Crews have been on this beach and nearby beaches to collect oiled sand and vegetation, and to scrape oil off rocks and boulders, as seen on Monday.
Refugio State Beach is now a staging area for oil spill response efforts. Crews have been on this beach and nearby beaches to collect oiled sand and vegetation, and to scrape oil off rocks and boulders, as seen on Monday. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Two weeks after a ruptured crude oil pipeline dumped thousands of gallons into sensitive marine habitat off the Gaviota Coast, two local lawmakers have put forward bills at the state level to prevent and respond to oil spills in the future.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams spoke with reporters Tuesday about several bills that are in the works, one of which would allow local cleanup crews to begin work immediately in the case of a spill.

Why ocean cleanup crew boats did not arrive until late afternoon, hours after the spill was reported, is still an unanswered question. 

Jackson said that U.S. Coast Guard ships didn't arrive on scene from Los Angeles until 5 p.m. on May 19, but the spill was reported just before noon. 

"To have those six hours away could have been a significant factor in the spread of the spill," she said.

The spill was initially estimated at 21,000 gallons of crude oil and later amended to be a maximum, worst-case scenario of 101,000 gallons. 

In order to deal with a spill immediately, Jackson is introducing Senate Bill 414, known as the Rapid Oil Spill Response Act, which would create a voluntary program for local fishing vessels and crews to be paid contractors who could respond right away through the Department of Fish & Wildlife's Oil Spill Prevention and Response.

"Since fishing crews know the ocean, they know the currents," she said.

The oil company responsible would reimburse OSPR later, but the move would ensure cleanup could begin immediately, she said. The bill also would call for two oil skimmers, funded by taxpayer monies, to be stationed along the Santa Barbara coastline to be ready to respond to spills.

Williams said that oil industry officials have come to his office, stating that they have local response ready for immediate cleanup efforts, but that the reality after this spill was different and delays resulted.

The bill also has provisions to place a temporary moratorium on the use of dispersants — chemicals used on surface oil slicks to break down the oil so it mixes with the water — within state waters until more action can be taken by state and national agencies. No dispersants have been used, or will be used, during the response to the Refugio oil spill, officials have said. 

Another Jackson bill in the works, co-authored by Williams, would require annual oil pipeline inspections and shift oversight responsibility back to the state. 

The ruptured pipeline, owned by Plains All-American Pipeline, had been inspected two weeks before the spill was reported, but the report has not been finalized, according to Plains. 

There's been a focus on the regulatory agency, the federal Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has oversight over the Plains pipeline in Santa Barbara County.   

The agency oversees over 2.6 million miles of pipeline around the country, and it's unclear how much involvement PHMSA officials had before the pipe's failure. 

The proposed inspection bill would reestablish the Office of the State Fire Marshal's role in inspecting the federally-regulated pipelines. The office was in charge of the pipe's inspection until 2013, but the role was passed back to federal jurisdiction, Jackson said. 

Oil companies hired up the inspectors, offering them two-to-three times the salary to work for them, she said.

This proposed bill would allow for the state to be competitive so those inspectors "will not be lured away by the industry," she said, adding that funding is still an open question.

"We haven't totally worked up how we're going to do that," she said.

Williams plans to introduce a bill that would require pipelines in environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas along the coast to use the best available technology to reduce the amount of oil released in case of a spill, including automatic shut-off system technology.

Because of a federal court case between the county and the pipe's previous owner, the Plains pipeline's operations and safety was never under county jurisdiction and reportedly doesn't have automatic shut-off valves as part of its system, as many others in Santa Barbara County do. 

"This was the lone pipeline that does not have it," Williams said. "We need to have state regulation to require that."

Williams said that the law would add to the state code and that he believes the state could have jurisdiction.

"We believe this is not federally preempted," he said.

Williams said that Santa Barbara County's oil infrastructure is aging and increasingly owned by smaller companies.

"How much are they actually repairing any of this infrastructure?" he opined, conjuring up the spill record of oil company Greka, which operates in the north part of Santa Barbara County and has reported numerous onshore spills in the past.

The company settled a lawsuit with the county in 2011, paying out $2 million involving violation of codes, rules and regulations in connection with Greka’s operation of onshore oil and gas facilities.

The bills proposed by Jackson and Williams will be finalized and the language made public in the next few days, so the legislation will likely head to policy committee hearings sometime in June.

Jackson, a member of the State Senate's Natural Resources Committee, said she plans to hold a hearing to "find answers that explain the collapse in communication that allowed such a drastic oil spill to go undetected until it was far too late."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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