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Cleanup Crews Vacuum Up Oil-Soaked Soil in Wake of Refugio Spill

The effort is expected to last eight to 12 weeks, with the oil seeping 2 to 3 feet below the surface

Crews rake through oil-soaked dirt before it is vacuumed up south of Highway 101 on Wednesday, part of the continuing cleanup effort after the May 19 spill near Refugio State Beach.
Crews rake through oil-soaked dirt before it is vacuumed up south of Highway 101 on Wednesday, part of the continuing cleanup effort after the May 19 spill near Refugio State Beach. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

A black path snaked from a small culvert about a mile north of Refugio Campground, marking where a river of crude oil ripped through the brush south of Highway 101 before cascading over the bluffs yards away, down into the Pacific two weeks earlier.

On Wednesday, about 40 cleanup crew members were in the former path of the oil, operating bulldozers, taking soil samples and operating a giant vacuum to remove sludgy soil left in the wake of the spill.

Officials said the oil had penetrated about 2 to 3 feet below the soil's surface in the area that was being worked on Wednesday.

Clean-up in the area will likely last from eight to 12 weeks, said Steve Calanog, federal on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who was watching over the activity Wednesday afternoon.

Media had been invited to observe the cleanup effort.

Calanog said the soil was the consistency of "slurry" because it was so saturated with oil. White rolls of absorbent padding lined the oiled pathway on the ground to keep any oil from spreading laterally, he said.

EPA crews will be testing for VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, that might be in the area and could cause environmental harm if left alone, Calanog said.

Bulldozers worked to excavate the soil, which was then combed over with rakes as a cultural resources monitor watched in case any artifacts or items of significance be found.

"It's a thoughtful process," said Rusty Harris-Bishop, a public information officer from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Refugio spill
A cultural specialist is seen on site Wednesday to keep an eye out for items of cultural importance that might be found during the excavation of contaminated soil. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The area south of the highway is one of the three separate cleanup sites, with the other two being offshore and the other being north of the highway, where the ruptured pipe has been replaced.  

To view a video of that site taken Tuesday, click here.

The on-shore south of the highway presented a special challenge, as piping between the giant vacuum and the culvert had to run under the train tracks. The train has been running at least twice a day during the clean-up effort, presenting another challenge as workers had to coordinate with.

A thousand workers are still part of the effort to clean up the coastline, according to U.S. Coast Guard Commanding Officer Keith Donahue, who works on the Pacific Coast Strike Team.

"They've made a tremendous effort," he said. "A lot of it is coming down to scrubbing the rocks by hand."

Ships seen offshore now are mostly taking a support role, like shuttling cleanup crews to beach that can only be accessed by water, he said.

"There's really no recoverable product in the water at this point," he said. "Oil that's there now is most likely from natural seeps."

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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