Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

By Maddie Stone on at

Last Tuesday, an onshore pipeline belonging to the Texas-based oil company Plains All American burst, spewing roughly 397,467 litres of crude down a storm drain and into an undeveloped stretch of coastline just north of Santa Barbara. Roughly a fifth of that oil made its way into open water.

It may be the worst oil disaster the California coast has seen since a devastating 1969 spill in the very same region sparked a national wave of environmental legislation. Thankfully, the ruptured pipeline only released a fraction of that historic spill’s 11 million litres. And yet, as the oil slick spreads, we can expect the damage to have depressing echoes of that 1969 disaster.

Impact

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

California mussels and a crab are covered in oil at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The Santa Barbara Channel, a region that stretches from the coast out to a number of offshore islands, is often called the “Galapagos of the north” for its ecological richness and diversity. The channel offers habitat to porpoises, dolphins, seals and sea lions, in addition to serving as a migratory passage for blue and humpback whales and a range of birds. Towering underwater kelp forests are home to a diverse community of fish and benthic invertebrates.

In the early days of a spill like this, large animals can become smothered with oil and die from toxic exposure. Over the longer term, tides will disperse the oil, and hot California days may cause some of it to sink to the seafloor, seeping into sediments and reefs. Once dispersed, oil can have far-reaching impacts on the communities of microorganisms that form the base of marine food webs and impact the nutrient cycles they drive. Oil slick can also diminish the amount of light available in the water column for photosynthetic organisms, including kelp and coral.

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

A bird covered in oil flaps its wings at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows an oil slick from a broken pipeline off the central California coast near Santa Barbara on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows an oil slick from a broken pipeline off the central California coast near Santa Barbara on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows an oil slick from a broken pipeline off the central California coast near Santa Barbara on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows an oil slick from a broken pipeline off the central California coast near Santa Barbara on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Rocks are covered with oil on the beach at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Rocks are covered with oil on the beach at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Cleanup

As of Friday, the crude had spread across 9.5 square miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline, from Arroyo Hondo beach to Refugio State Beach, according to CNN. So far, roughly ten thousand gallons of oily water have been skimmed off the ocean surface, while 91 cubic yards of oily solids and 800 cubic yards of soil have been removed from the beach. The initial cleanup has mainly involved buckets, rakes and manual labour. Over the longer term, chemical dispersants and bioremediation techniques might be employed.

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

A clean-up worker removes oil from the beach at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

John Ziegler, of Pismo Beach, Calif, part of a group of citizen volunteers, hauls buckets of collected oil up from the beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Plastic buckets filled with oil collected from the beach at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Clean up workers tie oil-contaminated sand bags at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Thursday, May 21, 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Clean up crews remove oil-laden sand on the beach at Refugio State Beach, site of an oil spill, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand from the shoreline at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand from the shoreline at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Kristen Karnes, left, and Eric Simon, air monitors with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, take readings at the site of an oil spill at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Staff members and volunteers work to clean oil off a brown pelican at the International Bird Rescue office in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, on Friday, May 22, 2015. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

This May 22, 2015 photo from the U.S. Coast Guard shows animal care experts at SeaWorld San Diego attending to an oiled sea lion, which was found Friday at Refugio Beach near Goleta, Calif. PA2 Seth Johnson/U.S. Coast Guard via AP

Santa Barbara Still Reeling From the Worst Oil Spill in Decades

Ships pulling booms collect oil from a spill near Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant