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Refugio Oil Spill Response Effort Expands to Ventura County Beaches

Pipeline company replaces 50-foot piece of ruptured pipe that was removed and sent away for testing

A 50-foot section of Line 901, owned by Plains All American Pipeline, was replaced on Saturday and the new section, in green, soon will be covered in clean soil. This pipe was the source of the May 19 oil spill, just north of Refugio State Beach in southern Santa Barbara County.
A 50-foot section of Line 901, owned by Plains All American Pipeline, was replaced on Saturday and the new section, in green, soon will be covered in clean soil. This pipe was the source of the May 19 oil spill, just north of Refugio State Beach in southern Santa Barbara County. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Refugio oil spill cleanup efforts expanded to Ventura County over the weekend, but officials cannot confirm whether the tar balls discovered on those beaches are from the spill on the Gaviota Coast of southern Santa Barbara County.

Teams of people have been sent to Ventura County beaches to evaluate the need for cleanup, and responders are being careful not to disturb cultural resources or the nesting areas of the endangered western snowy plover, officials said Sunday.

Affected areas include Ventura Pier and Oxnard Shores, according to Plains All American Pipeline, the responsible party for the spill. Plains is financially responsible for the costs of the oil spill response effort and is part of the incident’s unified command.

Federal, state and local agencies are managing the response, which is led jointly by the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency

Officials said they have sampled the oil and are working on a “fingerprinting” process to determine the sources, just as they have for other oil found along the coastline in the last two weeks.  

The source of the May 19 oil spill is about a mile north of Refugio State Beach, or about 10 miles from the edge of Goleta and about 40 miles up the coast from the Ventura County line.

“Until we know more, Plains is responding as if this is related to the Refugio incident and commits to do what is necessary to clean Ventura’s beaches,” Plains senior director of safety and security Patrick Hodgins said in a statement.

Caltrans District 7 placed informational signs along Highway 101 "to make sure that motorists were aware of the oil leak in Santa Barbara," spokesman Patrick Chandler said. The changeable message signs were placed along the northbound lanes in the Mussel Shoals and La Conchita areas and said, "Beaches open; avoid contract with oil or tar." 

Samples were also taken from the tar balls found last week at Los Angeles County beaches, including El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo beaches. Several beaches were temporarily closed late last week while cleanup crews in the now-familiar white hazardous-materials suits worked along the shoreline.

Boats and a barge are still deployed along the southern Santa Barbara County coastline and teams of so-called shoreline assessment teams are combing the beaches to collect oiled sand, oiled vegetation such as kelp and seaweed, and meticulously scraping oil off rocks on the beaches.

The investigation continues into the cause of the spill, overseen by the pipeline company’s federal regulatory agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. A 50-foot section of the underground 24-inch pipeline, including the ruptured portion, was removed and trucked away to a laboratory for testing last week.

Brad Leone, Plains’ director of corporate communications and stakeholder relations, said the company replaced the section of pipe on Saturday and will cover the exposed section with clean soil after all the oiled soil is removed.

The Refugio and El Capitan state beaches on the Gaviota Coast are still closed and the campgrounds are being used as staging areas for the clean-up efforts. No other beaches have been closed to the public, despite the shoreline oil found along the coastline in many areas. Public Health officials have been constantly monitoring air, water and soil quality and say they will close a beach immediately if there is any threat to public health and safety.

The fishery closure is still active and impacts all fishing and shellfish taking in the area between Coal Oil Point and west of Gaviota State Beach, extending seven miles out from the shoreline.

There’s also still an active Federal Aviation Administration flight restriction in the airspace of Refugio State Beach, which includes a five-mile radius around the park with a 1,000-foot ceiling.

Santa Barbara County’s Emergency Operations Center has hosted the response’s unified command post since the day after the spill, but operations moved to an undisclosed building in Goleta near the Santa Barbara Airport over the weekend. 

A class action lawsuit was filed against Plains on Monday on behalf of sea urchin diver and nearshore fisherman Stace Cheverez, according to attorney firms Keller Rohrback LLP and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. The suit alleges Plains negligently operated the pipeline which caused the oil spill and that the lack of an automatic shut-off valve contributed to the spill. 

The fishery closure impacts where the area Cheverez fishes for grass rockfish and the spill in general has caused losses for local businesses, the complaint alleges.

“These waters are home to hundreds of sensitive animal species, and serve as the backbone of the local economy,” the complaint says. “Tourists come to these beaches to enjoy the unspoiled sand and water. People support themselves and their families by harvesting fish and shellfish from these waters. All that has been damaged by this spill, and that damage will likely last for decades.”

Keller Rohrback, which has a Santa Barbara office, represented fishermen, landowners and businesses after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and won a $5 billion judgment, according to a statement issued by the firm.

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli 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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