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Tuesday, March 26 , 2019, 1:35 am | Fair 50º


Group Steps In to Try to Cap Off at Least One Persistent Summerland Beach Oil Leak

As agencies ponder leaks and odors from long-abandoned wellheads, Heal the Ocean hatches plan to put in a plug of its own

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Summerland Beach was bustling with offshore drilling activity, with hundreds of wells pumping out oil and gas from fertile fields below the Santa Barbara Channel. This photo was taken from Ortega Hill, circa 1920. Click to view larger
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Summerland Beach was bustling with offshore drilling activity, with hundreds of wells pumping out oil and gas from fertile fields below the Santa Barbara Channel. This photo was taken from Ortega Hill, circa 1920. (U.S. Geological Survey file photo)

Gloppy, viscous oil collecting on Summerland Beach has been a problem for decades, ever since efforts began more than a century ago to capture the crude oil that is found naturally there.

The Summerland Oil Field was developed in the late 1890s and was the first offshore oil development in the United States.

Piers that spanned from the shoreline into the Pacific helped tap into the oil and gas seeps.

Over time, wells in the area were abandoned, left to deteriorate, and leaks have been observed on the beach and in the water.

Many of the companies responsible for the infrastructure no longer exist, leaving the State of California to shoulder the burden of cleanup and removal.

Now, an environmental advocacy group is working with the state to try to cap at least one of the leaking wellheads that was abandoned long ago without the proper remediation.

The nonprofit Heal the Ocean is working to secure state funding to properly cap — once and for all — a persistent offender known as the Becker onshore well, which has seepage that becomes visible for several weeks each year.

Heal the Ocean’s efforts come in the wake of more public outreach by Santa Barbara County to hear from locals about the beach’s oil contamination.

A public meeting will be held to discuss the Summerland Beach oil issues at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at Summerland Presbyterian Church, 2400 Lillie Ave.

The meeting will be hosted by First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal and several county agencies that have been dealing with the challenges, including the Public Health Department, the Office of Emergency Management and the Air Pollution Control District.

Officials from the State Lands Commission, the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the U.S. Coast Guard also are expected to participate.

The meeting comes just several weeks after Summerland Beach was temporarily closed to the public because of a large volume of oil on the beach and strong petroleum odors in the area.

The Public Health Department ordered the closure out of concern for “adverse health effects” that could result from exposure to the oil or vapors.

According to a State Lands Commission staff report, much of the beach’s issues stem from the hundreds of offshore wells that were drilled and then abandoned in the late 19th and 20th centuries without state authority and while trespassing on state property.

The state received no revenues from the oil fields, and was effectively left with the cleanup responsibilities after the wells were abandoned improperly.

“In an ideal universe, we would want the state to find millions (of dollars) and clean it up,” said Summerland resident Lee Heller, who spoke at a recent State Lands Commission hearing on Summerland.

“That’s a bigger ask than is going to happen.”

Focusing on the Becker wellhead, which has been spotted leaking at multiple locations, would get faster results than a big abstract request, she said.

Heller described the wellheads being plugged with trash and anything else people could find.

“It was really insanely low-tech,” she said.

The next target would be the Treadwell wellhead, which is located further offshore.

“It would be much more work to get to it,” Heller said of the Treadwell well, but she noted that the end of the beach where the Becker wellhead is located tends to be the most polluted.

Summerland’s beach is uniquely accessible and visible from Highway 101, drawing people from all over. Given the beach’s popularity, Heller has raised concerns about how the county is handling the polluted coastline from a public health standpoint.

In August, the State Lands Commission approved investigating and assessing the Becker well, which is located in the surf zone in about three or four feet of water and can only be accessed from the beach at extremely low tide.

What preceded and followed that meeting involved a bit of serendipity, according to Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean.

The organization has traditionally focused on wastewater issues, like the presence of bacteria that could cause a beach to close. But Hauser said Summerland’s oil issues could fall under the category of ocean dumping, which have huge impacts on water quality, as well.

Hauser reached out to the diving company AQUEOS, which has founders who live in Santa Barbara. They told her that tending to the Summerland well is something its crews can handle.

The firm has worked with the State Lands Commission on cleanup and removal of abandoned wells, pilings and other structures up and down the California coast.

The Friday before the State Lands Commission was to talk about the Becker well, Hauser sent a letter proposing the commissioners meet with her and other local representatives about doing something to cap the wells, not just study them.

On Aug. 19, the commission met in Newport Beach and approved surveying the Becker well. Afterward, staff approached Hauser about her letter.

When they realized she was serious, they agreed to come to Santa Barbara.

On Aug. 27, representatives from the commission, the county, AQUEOS and the environmental consulting group Dudek all met at the Heal the Ocean’s office to talk about a plan to cap the well.

Now, Heal the Ocean is waiting for a bid from AQUEOS and will apply for a grant under the Proposition 1 water bond — an amount that could be around $1.5 million — to cap the well.

Heal the Ocean has embarked on a $46,000 fundraising campaign to cover staff time to get the grant process moving.

Timing is key, because a letter of intent is due Nov. 30 and the grant deadline is in February, Hauser said.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who had a representative from her office attend the meeting, said she was encouraged.

“This is a long time in coming,” she said of the well remediation. “The people of the community deserve to have those wells capped.”

From the state’s perspective, Jackson said, companies ust be held accountable for properly capping the wells before they go out of business.

“We have to try, if at all possible, to make these companies responsible for the cleanup,” she said.

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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