The Toro Canyon Creek oil spill | Credit: California Fish and Wildlife Department

With the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office still investigating who didn’t do what and when in connection with a 2020 oil spill that got into Montecito’s Toro Canyon Creek, the county supervisors just approved a $450,000 contract to hire the outside law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP to provide advice on environmental law and compliance matters. The legal budget exceeds the $428,567 that Public Works officials said had been spent cleaning up the mess at a supervisors’ meeting last August. The spill started when the Thomas Fire melted a stretch of oil pipeline running alongside Toro Creek, releasing 450-6,000 gallons of oil into the creek. 

The question of ultimate responsibility for the spill and attendant cleanup has proved jurisdictionally confounding in the extreme. The spill originated in seeps that had been commercially mined in 1882 by Occidental Mining and Petroleum, which went out of business and abandoned the site decades ago. In the 1990s, the oozing seep led to significant spillage and briefly the State Department of Fish and Wildlife assumed control. The EPA then assumed incident command in 1998 and the federal government spent $1.5 million in improvisational clean and containment efforts until 2008. At that point, responsibility got passed like a hot potato to the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board and then to the County of Santa Barbara’s Public Works Department, albeit very unwillingly. 

The county received limited funding to help offset the new costs. That money, however, ran out in 2019. The spill of 2020 led to the deaths of 17 small birds, 13 bats, and one squirrel. It required the rehabilitation of 92 frogs and one lizard. 

As environmental fire drills go, the Toro Creek cleanup moved as fast as the leaking oil itself. The spill was first detected August 3, 2020; state officials were notified 18 days later; then, on September 30, 2020, a protective oil boom was installed by county firefighters to keep the oil from getting into the creek. By January 21, 2021, however, the oil had gotten past the boom and into the creek. Actual cleanup efforts commenced July 6, 2021, 11 months after the leak was first detected.

Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.