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Local News

Cleanup Under Way for Large Oil Spill Near Refugio State Beach

Crews working to remove 4-mile-long crude oil spill on Santa Barbara County coast caused by ruptured pipeline

Derek Fisher holds onto the shirt of Steven Botello as he tries to reach out to help and oil soaked bird that washed ashore on Tuesday at Refugio Beach Campground. A large oil spill coated the beach and surrounding coastline.
Derek Fisher holds onto the shirt of Steven Botello as he tries to reach out to help and oil soaked bird that washed ashore on Tuesday at Refugio Beach Campground. A large oil spill coated the beach and surrounding coastline. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a gallery of oil spill photos]

About 5,000 gallons of oil were removed from the ocean and beach by Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after officials responded to a major oil spill that occurred midday Tuesday when a pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach.

The break in the 24-inch line owned by Plains All American Pipeline sent thousands of gallons of crude onto the shoreline and into the waters along the Santa Barbara County coast.

Early estimates indicated at least 21,000 gallons, or about 500 barrels, of oil poured out of the pipeline, which carries crude from Exxon's Las Flores Canyon plant to Gaviota.

(Officials previously reported that the line had been abandoned.)

Capt. Jennifer Williams of the U.S. Coast Guard speaks to reporters Tuesday night about the oil spill at Refugio State Beach. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The pipeline break was on the mountain side of the freeway, about a quarter of a mile from Highway 101, according to Capt. Jennifer Williams of the U.S. Coast Guard.

From there, the oil flowed through a culvert under the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks, and down to the ocean, Williams said at a press briefing Tuesday night. 

Before darkness fell, some 20 barrels of oil had been recovered by clean-up vessels, Williams said, adding that officials were estimating that oil could move 2 to 4 miles down the coast overnight.

The pipeline has been secured, and a berm has been built to prevent further leakage of oil into the ocean, Williams said, and said the spill has been classified as a medium-sized spill.

Plains All American Pipeline is responsible for the cleanup effort, officials said. 

In a Wednesday morning update, the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management said the nearby rail lines have been inspected and cleared for use.

Refugio State Beach campground and beach has been closed, and campers have been evacuated to nearby parks. Gaviota State Park's day use section has closed and it's still unknown if that park or El Capitan State Beach will need to be closed during the oil spill response efforts. ​State officials have ordered a ban on all fishing and taking of shell fish in the spill area. 

About 20 barrels of oil were retrieved from the ocean Wednesday before nightfall and 100 barrels of oil were picked up from the onshore spill site, according to Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

 

As promised, more vessels are in the water doing cleanup starting Thursday morning, including boats from Clean Seas and Patriot Services. Three 65-foot boats are cleaning oil off the ocean and six more are “corralling” oil in the water. The initial cleanup estimate is three days. 

Patriot has 73 people doing protection work for sensitive areas, including creek mouths, at Bell Canyon, Tecolote and Gaviota. 

Patriot is Pacific Petroleum is working to repair the ruptured pipeline, officials said. 

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and County Fire crews reported the spill shortly before noon on Tuesday, and the flow was stopped with a valve by responding crews a few hours later, said Richard Abrams from the county OEM.    

The picturesque cove at Refugio State Beach is coated in oil Tuesday after a spill caused by a ruptured pipeline. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Multiple agencies responded to the scene and a unified command was set up, including representatives from County Fire, the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Fish and Wildlife state officials.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) sent people to the scene, including three wardens and an environmental scientist, spokeswoman Alexia Retallack said.

OSPR wildlife officers will be conducting an investigation, and a Department of Fish and Wildlife official will remain on scene as a state representative, she said. 

Santos Cabral, a warden for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that clean-up workers have not yet come across any oiled wildlife. If any animals are spotted, Cabral urged people to report the animals to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877)823-6926.

Refugio Beach Oil Spill from Noozhawk on Vimeo.

Local groups are helping with wildlife rescue, which is being coordinated by the state and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The state and local wildlife organizations are not asking for volunteers at this time and the beaches are closed to the public.

The SB Wildlife Care Network will be stabilizing birds brought in by California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff, getting them warm before being transferred to another facility, said June Taylor of SBWCN.

Fish and Wildlife officials will then transfer the animals down to the International Bird Rescue organization in San Pedro, which responded to the BP oil spill and has the experience and facilities to take care of the animals, Taylor said.

“We’ve got it under control.”

Campers at the nearby Refugio State Beach Campground watched in shock as the beach became more coated throughout the day. By late afternoon, the tide rose and brought oily waves onto the sand, along with a strong smell that stretched for miles.

Refugio Beach and the campground at Refugio were both closed, and a warning was issued for El Capitan State Beach a mile down the coast.

The first signs of wildlife in distress also started to show up on the oil-covered beach.

Steven Botello, a visitor to the area, reached for an oil-covered bird that had washed up to the shore, but the animal eventually made its way back into the waves.

An oil-spill cleanup vessel sits offshore Tuesday at Refugio State Beach after a pipeline break fouled the shoreline. Booms were deployed, and some 20 barrels of oil were recovered. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Botello was on the beach with a group that had driven up from Long Beach to Refugio to camp and fish over the Memorial Day weekend.

John Kane, another member of the group, had been fishing in a boat offshore when he noticed the smell, around 11:30 a.m.

"Thank God we realized and didn't eat anything we caught," he said. 

Looking out over the beach, Kane said he's never seen a spill of that magnitude.

"What a mess," he said, shaking his head.

The county Office of Emergency Management sent out an advisory notice Wednesday afternoon asking people to avoid the area pending cleanup. 

State Park Officials worked to move people off the beach and "strongly urged" media to leave the sand, stating that they could not say if the fumes in the area were toxic or not.

The smell of oil was overwhelming as multiple helicopters circled overhead, whipping up noxious wind in their wake.

Plains All American Pipeline issued the following statement regarding the spill:

"Earlier today, Plains All American Pipeline, L.P., became aware of a crude oil release from its 24-inch Las Flores to Gaviota pipeline in Santa Barbara County. Initial reports indicate the released oil reached a culvert leading to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the spill has impacted ocean water and the shoreline. At this time, the amount of released oil is unknown.

"Plains shut down the flow of oil in the pipeline and has initiated its emergency response plan. The culvert has been blocked so no additional oil is reaching the water. Plains is working with local officials and first responders on site to begin clean up and remediation efforts. 

"Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact. Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of all involved. No injuries have been reported at this time. 

"Plains will continue to provide updates on the response effort as more information is made available. For the most up-to-date information throughout the response or to make direct inquiries, please visit www.plainsupdate.com. A claims and information number has been established at 866.753.3619."

— Noozhawk Executive Editor Tom Bolton contributed to this report.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at [email protected] and news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at [email protected] Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Oil coats the shoreline at Refugio State Beach on Tuesday afternoon following a spill reported from a ruptured pipeline. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

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