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Refugio Oil Spill Cleanup Efforts Transition to Smaller Projects, Long-Term Monitoring

Evaluations of the May 19 spill's impacts to the environment are expected to continue for years, officials say

Crews scrape oil off rocks on the shore of Refugio State Beach on Wednesday. Officials say the spill response effort is transitioning to a long-term recovery and monitoring period.
Crews scrape oil off rocks on the shore of Refugio State Beach on Wednesday. Officials say the spill response effort is transitioning to a long-term recovery and monitoring period. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Cleanup crew members in white suits worked on their hands and knees at Refugio State Beach on Wednesday, using small brushes to scrub oil-covered rocks that remain on the shoreline of southern Santa Barbara County.

It's a sign that much of the large-scale cleanup from the May 19 oil spill is complete, but smaller tasks remain as the effort transitions from immediate clean-up and response to long-term monitoring of the coastline and sensitive habitats that may have been affected.

In addition to cleanup for rocky shoreline areas, excavation is also continuing on the bluff near the pipeline release, where oil seeped about 2 feet into the ground. 

It's been more than three weeks since the spill, and many of the agency officials who flew in from across the county to work at unified command since the beginning of the spill are starting to pack up.

A half-dozen officials sat down with reporters one-on-one to talk about where things go from here.

Part of the transition will involve evaluating how much damage was done to the environment and how much Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible, will have to pay to mitigate the damage.

A Natural Resource Damage Assessment will take place, which will involve various agencies looking at time-critical data to focus on issues including the number of animals who died or were otherwise impacted by the spill.  

Plains will then have to pay an amount based on effects to wildlife and habitats, and that funding may go toward restoration projects.  

Since Refugio State Beach was the area of highest impact during the spill, "we'll be here longer than any other beach," according to Capt. Jennifer Williams of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Capt. Mark Crossland of the California Department of Fish & Wildlife said that long-term monitoring is beginning now, and was asked what "long-term" means for the state agency. 

"Years," he said.

Not all of the coastline was impacted in the same way, so monitoring may look different in various places.

Eric Hjelstrom, the State Parks superintendent for the two coastal parks closed by the spill, said that he and other local staff will be watching vigilantly and will report anything that isn't normal for the area.

The host of UC Santa Barbara researchers, faculty and students who study the local coastlines and habitats will also likely be vital to long-term monitoring.

"There will probably be a lot of graduate studies that come out of this," Williams said.

The estimated amount of oil spilled is still at a maximum of 101,000 gallons and Williams said it may be a while before that number is updated.

The Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique, or SCAT, teams have walked all 96.5 miles of coastline being monitored in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, the group confirmed, and not only once but several times throughout the weeks since the spill.

About 76 percent of the shoreline in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties have met cleanup goals at this point but the El Capitan and Refugio beaches remain closed, which were the only two beaches to get closed to the public.  

"We're making progress," Williams said.

Whether the appearances of tar balls on other beaches along the coast as far south as Los Angeles County are related to the Refugio Spill is something the response officials still could not answer.

Samples of oil have been taken from the pipeline itself and from natural seeps in the area, Williams said. Responders say they're essentially "fingerprinting" all the oil found, but no results have been released yet. 

"Even if there is a connection, it doesn't change our response," Williams said, adding that the research takes time and must be correct, "because the implications are huge."

About 1,400 people responded to the spill within the first few days, and Hjelstrom said that the coordination between agencies has been excellent.

"This thing could have been a lot worse," he said.

It's unclear how much total clean-up costs will be, and numbers have been circulating that Plains is paying at least $3 million a day in cleanup efforts. The company will also be responsible for reimbursing public agency clean-up costs and paying claims for damages. 

Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety and security for Plains, said that the company is not concerned about costs, but about clean-up.

"The goal is to do it safely," he said, adding the company plans to stay in Santa Barbara with cleanup and monitoring as long as it takes. "We're not going anywhere."

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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