The oil sheen off of Summerland Beach in Santa Barbara on January 7 | Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Alexander Gray / U.S. Coast Guard 

In the face of this month’s pounding rains, two old oil wells — one by Summerland, the other along Toro Canyon Creek — have sprung leaks that either can’t be found or can’t be plugged. 

In the case of Toro Canyon Creek, the leak involved an old open-pit mining operation considerably upslope from Highway 192. For reasons still not officially determined, county Public Works officials say 420 gallons of oil and water were released from an oil and water separator and underground storage tank on January 1, 2023. It remains uncertain how much of that has been captured by vacuum trucks dispatched to the site. 

“The best way to confine the spread of oil from these types of seeps is capturing the oil and then transporting it to a refinery or oil production facility,” wrote Public Works spokesperson Lael Wageneck. 

Capping the well, he said, would build up pressure that would result in the oil being pushed out at some other location. By deploying an oil and water separator in conjunction with an underground storage tank, he said, the oil can be directed to just one location. 

The separator and underground storage tank in place now was built 25 years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency. Six years ago, it sustained damage during the Thomas Fire. That damage was not discovered until after a previous oil spill at the site that was first reported in August 2020. 

The slowness with which the county controlled the spill has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office. Although no charges have been filed, the DA has indicated that a criminal or civil action is possible. 

Requests for documents by the DA’s Office under the Public Records Act as part of this investigation have been rebuffed by the County Counsel’s office and a private law firm it hired to handle possible criminal prosecution. This, in turn, has triggered a court fight over the release of documents.  The county has currently budgeted $1.5 million to bring that system up to current technical specifications.  

Meanwhile, the oil sheen spotted in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Summerland last week was also believed to be the result of an abandoned oil well, but investigators with the Coast Guard and the State’s emergency response office have failed to determine which one. The sheen was also determined to be sufficiently diaphanous and superficial as to defy any of the containment and disbursement strategies common to the arsenal of oil spill first responders.

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