More than 6,000 gallons of oil has been raked, skimmed, and vacuumed from a spill that stretched across 9 miles of California coast, just a fraction of the sticky, stinking goo that escaped from a broken pipeline, officials said.
Up to 105,000 gallons may have leaked from the ruptured pipeline Tuesday, and up to 21,000 gallons reached the sea off the Santa Barbara coast, according to estimates. The environmental impact still is being assessed, but so far there is no evidence of widespread harm to birds and sea life.
Federal regulators investigated as workers in protective suits shoveled the black sludge off beaches and boats towed booms into place to corral the two slicks.
The chief executive of Plains All American Pipeline LP, which runs the pipeline, visited the spill site Wednesday and apologized.
“We deeply, deeply regret that this incident has occurred at all,” Chairman and CEO Greg L. Armstrong said at a news conference. “We apologize for the damage that it’s done to the wildlife and to the environment.”
Armstrong said the company received permission to continue cleanup operations around the clock and vowed that they “will remain here until everything has been restored to normal.”
Crude was flowing through the pipe at 54,600 gallons an hour during the leak, the company said, but didn’t say how long it leaked before it was discovered and shut down or discuss how fast the oil escaped.
Federal regulators from the Department of Transportation, which oversees oil pipeline safety, investigated the leak’s cause, the pipe’s condition, and the potential violations.
The 24-inch pipe was built in 1991 had no previous problems. It was thoroughly inspected in 2012 according to the company. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the company accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006, according to federal records. The infractions involved pump failure, equipment malfunction, pipeline corrosion and operator error. The newspaper said a Plains Pipeline spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its regulatory record.
There was no estimate on the cost of the cleanup or how long it might take.
A combination of soiled beaches and the pungent stench of petroleum led officials to close Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach over the Memorial Day weekend. Both are popular campgrounds west of Santa Barbara.
Still, tourists pulled off the Pacific Coast Highway to eye the disaster from overlooking bluffs.
“It smells like what they use to pave the roads,” said Fan Yang, of Indianapolis, who was hoping to find cleaner beaches in Santa Barbara, about 20 miles away. “I’m sad for the birds, if they lose their habitat.”
The early toll on wildlife included two oil-covered pelicans according to spokeswoman Melinda Greene. Biologists were seen counting dead fish and crustaceans along sandy beaches and rocky shores.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife closed fishing and shellfish harvesting for a mile east and west of Refugio beach and deployed booms to protect the nesting and foraging habitat of the snowy plover and the least tern, both endangered shore birds.
The coastal area is habitat for seals, sea lions and whales, which are now migrating north through the area.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday night declared a state of emergency because of the spill, a move that frees up additional state funding and resources to help in the cleanup.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her office, along with the state attorney general, is investigating the pipeline spill for possible criminal prosecution or a finding of civil liability.
The coastline was the scene of a much larger spill in 1969 — the largest in U.S. waters at the time — that is credited with giving rise to the American environmental movement.
Environmental groups used the spill as a new opportunity to take a shot at fossil fuels and remind people of the area’s notoriety with oil spills.
“Big Oil comes with big risks — from drilling to delivery,” said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Santa Barbara learned that lesson over 40 years ago when offshore drilling led to disaster.”
Large offshore rigs still dot the horizon off the coast, pumping crude to shore and small amounts of tar from natural seepage regularly show up on beaches. The leak occurred in a pipe that was carrying crude from an onshore facility toward refineries further down the chain of production.
The Associated Press