Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County on Wednesday due to a major oil spill just north of Refugio State beach the day before.
A representative from Plains All American Pipeline, which operates the broken pipe, confirmed Wednesday that — “worst case scenario” — 105,000 gallons of crude spilled from the underground pipe. By Wednesday, the slick had spread out in many directions to cover nine square miles of ocean, and it will continue to disperse over time due to winds and currents.
Plains pipeline operations director Rich McMichael said Wednesday evening that two of the company’s pumps had problems on Tuesday morning. He said the pump was shut down at about 11:30 a.m. after employees noticed a “pressure anomaly.”
He read aloud a statement detailing the timeline: “At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, we experienced some mechanical issues at our Las Flores pump station on line 901 to Gaviota, causing the pipeline to shut down. We started the pumps at 10:55 a.m. Pacific Time, but were still having trouble with our pumping units.
“The pump at our Sisquoc Station went down at 11:15 a.m. and the operator in our control center shut the pipeline down at 11:30 a.m. At 12:30 p.m., we received a call from a local first responder reporting an odor in the area. We immediately dispatched a Plains employee to the pipeline to make a visual inspection, and he confirmed the release at 1:30 p.m.”
Plains CEO Greg Armstrong arrived in the area from Houston at about noon on Wednesday. “We deeply regret that this incident has occurred at all,” Armstrong told reporters. “I can assure you we are here to make it right,” he said.
As of Wednesday, cleanup crews were given the go-ahead to work 24/7. In addition to Refugio State Beach, El Capitan Beach has been closed to the public until next Thursday. U.S. Coast Guard PIO Rob Simpson said dispersants, or chemicals used to break down oil into smaller droplets, “have not been [part of] discussions as solutions.” Right now, their best option is physically removing the crude, Simpson said.
To do that, nine cleanup boats are surrounding affected areas. Using vacuum trucks, absorbent pads, and absorbent booms, they are removing contained pockets of oily water, which is transferred onto trucks to be measured. Aircraft continue to assess the area. Hundreds of responders in white suits are on scene, and more are expected to arrive on Thursday.
A slew of government agencies are assisting in the cleanup, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the county’s Office of Emergency Management. The number of wildlife impacted by the spill are not yet available. No humans have required medical attention, according to the county’s Public Health Department.
Approved in 1998, the 10-mile pipeline is the only energy infrastructure not within the county’s purview. According to county Energy Division director Kevin Drude, none of the records were ever shared with the county. The pipeline has not experienced any other significant problems.
The pipeline has the capacity to carry up to 150,000 barrels of oil each day, though the actual use is said to range from 40,000-50,000 barrels. The oil funnels between ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon Processing Facility near Refugio and a Gaviota pumping station owned by Plains. It is then sent to refineries in Kern County.
For decades, the federal government contracted the State Fire Marshal to handle pipeline inspection of the Plains operation, as it does for all pipelines within the state. But in 2013, the state agency gave inspection authority back to the feds. The reason for this change was because the state agency had difficulty retaining and recruiting inspectors, according to CalFire spokesperson Daniel Berlant.