‘Broke: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 2015’

Director Gail Osherenko

Courtesy Photo

The global environmental movement began with the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, and yet a similar, if less catastrophic disaster, occurred again in 2015, when the Plains All American Pipeline near Refugio Beach began spilling crude into the pristine waters of the Gaviota Coast. Longtime UCSB professor and sporadic documentarian Gail Osherenko was on the scene within hours, and her quest to understand how this could happen again forms the basis of this hour-long doc.

The blow-by-blow explanation of events questions why it took so long for the recovery work to kick off, while also showing how diligent and seemingly effective that effort was once initiated. It evaluates the spill’s impacts on the landscape, marine mammals, birds, and humans, from chemical pneumonia to commercial fishing woes, and reveals how susceptible to rupture these pipelines are across the country.

You witnessed both the Refugio and the 1969 spill. How were the situations different and how were they the same? I was not living in S.B. at the time of the 1969 spill, but I was following the news closely from my home in L.A. 1969 was an offshore blowout of an offshore well, and the amount spilled was much larger than the Plains spill of 2015.

Obviously, no one was prepared for the 1969 spill. As the film shows, they used a lot of hay bales, bulldozers, and heavy equipment operated on the beaches. I doubt that much of the oil was ever recovered, and loss of wildlife must have been much greater.

They were the same in galvanizing the community to action at the time of the spill. People went down to the beach and just started to clean up the oil (without any protective clothing or safety precautions). People really wanted to help and volunteer.

Hopefully the 2015 onshore spill from a pipeline will result in real changes to policy. Most critically, the 901 and 903 lines are now regulated by the county and state and going forward should have to comply with local and state regulations if they are rebuilt.

I don’t think the spill has had the striking effect of the 1969 wake-up call, but it has alerted our community to the risk of underground oil pipelines.

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Your film offers a lot of criticism on how slow the cleanup was to start. Did that surprise you? Yes, it shocked me that they didn’t start doing any cleanup at Refugio until late morning of the following day. That meant that oil that was gathered primarily in Refugio Bay was swept back out to sea and spread for miles down the coast to beaches in Ventura and even L.A. It likely resulted in much higher cleanup costs and a longer cleanup.

They waited because the U.S. Coast Guard was in charge (not local responders, who would have known how and where to get started on the cleanup). The Coast Guard needed time to develop a plan and wanted to be sure workers would be safe before doing anything. The emergency plans didn’t address what to do the way they would have in a spill where our local responders (County Fire and State) would be in charge.

There were rumors that the company, Plains, did not have contracts in place with cleanup companies to deal with this spill and that may have delayed getting workers out on the beaches. I don’t know if that is true. Clean Seas was out on the water quite quickly, but the cleanup from land was slow to get going. Equipment and boats that Clean Seas should have had available locally had been shifted north, so that may have also slowed the cleanup in the water.

There were lots of workers in the parking lot, as well as small boats and lights that could have been deployed the afternoon of the spill and through the night (something that should have happened), but they didn’t start work until around 10 a.m. the next morning, May 20, at Refugio. By then, much of the oil had been blown and carried by the tide back out to sea.

Did you attempt to interview anyone from Plains for the film? I made numerous calls to Plains to ask for interviews and was at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference in New Orleans the fall of 2015, but no one would talk on record, so the film instead uses the Plains safety expert’s explanations at the press briefings held by the JIC (Joint Information Command).

Despite the delay, the cleanup process seemed to be pretty diligent and effective. Is that the consensus in the environmental community? I don’t know what the consensus is in the environmental community, but my sense is that once the cleanup got underway, it was diligent. There were huge concerns by the biologists about disturbance of snowy plovers during their breeding season, but the cleanup workers adjusted to the concerns, taking extra precautions. Mike Love had a short doc in last year’s SBIFF all about this. And as Yvonne Addassi explains in the film, the workers took extra precautions not to disturb any living organisms on the rocks as they scraped off oil.

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Were there some challenges in making this film compared to your past films? Oh yes. I had never done a documentary project of this size and scope. I needed to acquire a press pass for access. I had to be creative about access to Refugio until I got a press pass, and even then, as you know, Plains and the JIC selected which reporters had most access and controlled what I could film.

I was not able to actually film at the pipeline spill site. That footage comes from others. I was not able to get into the command headquarters. I didn’t have a real film crew. I had some, a lot of, assistance from my friends Debra and John Piot, both of whom contributed mightily to the film, and John developed a score and original music.

I was trying to find the right song for the credits when Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center, remembered that her music-teacher sister in San Francisco (Robin Krop) had written a song about the oil spill called “Whatcha Gonna Do When the Oil Spills?” Linda had it on her cell phone, and when i heard the song, I knew it was perfect for the film.

Eventually, my daughter Linda Young, who lives in Vermont, recorded the vocals with a great guitar accompaniment by Ron Sweet, who engineered the song. (Ron has worked a lot with James Taylor.) My original film partner, Margarita Del Valle, worked with me for about six months and quite a bit of the shooting. When we had to part ways, I searched for another local who could edit the film, but everyone I knew was too busy. Eventually I found an excellent editor, Sandra Falkowski, who is based on an island in the Indian Ocean. We were able to spend a few days together in Santa Barbara, but most of the editing was done long-distance.

What’s your next project? I have no idea. When I was pulled into the oil spill, I had been working on a series about citizen science, but unless I find the right partners and interest in that project, I’ll just have to wait and see. For now, I’m focused on getting a wide audience for Broke.


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