“This is what we do,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coordinator Michelle Rogow said Tuesday in defense of the federal response at Refugio State Beach one week after about 100,000 gallons of crude leaked from a Plains All American pipeline.
Rogow’s remarks came in response to frustrations expressed by Santa Barbara County supervisors. For starters, supes asked, “Who’s in charge?” They were told both the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard act as unified commanders, as both land and water were contaminated by the oil spill.
“We’re joined at the hip,” said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams. “We make no decisions without each other.” Orders are given to nearly 1,000 people from a half-dozen state and local agencies, including the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Plains is also included.
Supervisors Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf complained the Unified Command structure initially cut out local resources. For instance, county firefighters — who were among the first to discover the spill on Tuesday and built a rim of rocks to prevent oil from running to the shoreline — were initially precluded from helping in the cleanup. (After some back-and-forth, 25 Fire Department hand-crew members were suited up to help on Saturday.)
Farr and Wolf were likewise perturbed that a Plains security guard had stopped them from entering the county’s emergency operations building, which had been given over to the Unified Command. “[That was] not a good thing,” Wolf said.
The supervisors also took issue that it hasn’t yet been clarified who knew what and when, and who arrived to what locations the day the pipe ruptured. “I would love personally to have a timeline of that development,” said Supervisor Peter Adam, who initially expressed frustration but then noted the spill volume amounted to just 3.1 percent the size of an Olympic swimming pool. (Plains adjusted the spill volume from 2,500 barrels to 2,400 barrels to reflect the oil found in the broken pipe being excavated for examination.)
Williams said the first call came into the Coast Guard at 12:39 p.m. on May 18. Personnel from federal agencies, Clean Seas, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and others arrived sometime after 2 p.m., though specific numbers and times remain unclear. (A spokesperson from the Joint Information Center could not say how many boats arrived on scene last Tuesday.)
Details are still murky because a federal investigation — which will likely result in civil penalties, and perhaps even criminal charges — is still underway, Williams and Rogow said. Time was needed that day to assess the situation and create a safety plan to pinpoint archeologically sensitive sites, Williams said. “It seems like a delay, but it’s necessary,” she explained.
As for the oil company, Plains spokesperson Meredith Matthews told The Santa Barbara Independent that the company “immediately initiated our emergency response plan,” though she could not speak to what specific steps were taken.
A week later this Tuesday, 16 vessels were participating in the cleanup. Five SCAT (shoreline cleanup and assessment technique) teams have combed nearly eight miles of affected shoreline. The crew has collected more than 10,000 gallons of oily water, Williams said. Twelve environmentally sensitive sites have been noted.
During public comment on Tuesday, COLAB’s Andy Caldwell proved to be the only speaker to defend the oil industry. “It was an accident,” Caldwell said. “It was unfortunate, but it will get cleaned up in a matter of weeks, not years.”
Caldwell was adamant that the same amount of oil leaks into the waters off the Refugio coast every two days due to natural seepage. Farr contended natural seeps do not require the closure of beaches, cost millions of dollars to clean, or bring hundreds of people from all over the country to Santa Barbara’s shores.
As for onshore, large tar balls have been found in recent days on nearby beaches, including Goleta’s, but it’s unclear if they are related to the spill or not. Out at sea, “tar pancakes” have been found 11 miles out, but UCSB researchers were similarly unsure of their origins.
Speaking Tuesday, a number of environmentalists called the event a disaster and spoke against oil drilling. Environmental Defense Center attorney Linda Krop, who has been a frequent attendee at the nearly dozen press conferences held since the spill, contended more cleanup should have been done during the first 36 hours when the winds were calm. She criticized the oil company for failing to install an automatic shutoff system.
The dollar amount Plains will be on the hook for remains unclear, but it will include all costs, including partial claims from the county (increased staffing, traffic, hotel tax revenue losses) and residents (real or personal property damage).
There was much public outcry over the last week that official cleanup crews acted too slowly while eager volunteers were turned away. That changed Monday afternoon when a group of volunteers were trained and took to the beaches the next day. Volunteers can visit the CalSpillWatch website to learn about more ways to help and to sign up for the next training session on May 28.