Dozens of Unified Command representatives packed the Elks Lodge for an open house on Saturday.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Loumania Stewart

Twelve days after the Refugio Oil Spill, questions still linger about the cause and official response effort to clean up the sand and water. But what is crystal clear is that oil spills in Santa Barbara are a big deal.

Such a big deal that dozens of representatives from the so-called Unified Command — headed by the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency, and including state and county agencies, as well as Plains All American Pipeline, the ruptured pipeline’s operator — packed Goleta’s Elks Lodge for an open house to field questions and show area residents how much work they’ve been doing.

Booths and charts with big diagrams about pipelines, oiled creatures, and potential health impacts lined the room. Sandwiches and cookies catered by Silvergreens were served. When asked if this kind of gathering was typical after oil spills, a representative from the EPA said it “seemed appropriate” this time.

Mike Berg, a representative at Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health (CTEH), said his firm has conducted more than 350 air samples and 132 water and soil readings to determine the land and air quality. Further, the toxicologists have conducted more than 8,500 real-time readings on UltraRAES (a handheld vapor or gas detector). Those results, Berg said, are shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Unified Command, which contracted CTEH. Berg said initial samples have been received but the analysis is ongoing.

On Friday, Unified Command reported that 40 live birds and 28 mammals affected by oil have been found; 22 birds and 14 mammals have died since the beginning of the response.

There has been no shortage of protests from the environmentalists — contesting everything from the bureaucratic response effort to lack of volunteer opportunities to oil drilling in general — since the pipe ruptured a week and a half ago. Activists did not appear to have a big presence at the event, though there were quite a few security guards in bright yellow shirts directing traffic, and attendees’ bags were checked at the door.

These security measures came after people reportedly threatened Plains executives at one of the previous press conferences, prompting the Unified Command to move locations several times and cut off access to the public. The purpose of the open house was to connect the experts with the public, an EPA spokesperson said.

The public presence on Saturday, though, was not huge. Attendees Ron and Jan Cronk were a bit surprised protests were not staged outside. The Goleta residents have been closely following the spill since the day the news broke, and they had favorable remarks about Plains and the multilateral response. Ron praised them for dispatching cleaning crews to Ventura, where oil from an unknown source recently washed up onshore. “It’s a neighborly thing [to do],” Ron said.

Jan also pointed out she has always gotten tar on her feet at the nearby beaches. “[It’s important to] keep it all in perspective. It’s unfortunate,” she said. “But it’s very minor compared to the natural seep we’ve come to expect.”


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