Almost 50 years later, Santa Barbara reels from another devastating oil spill
Oil spill on beach (Shutterstock)

Mark Massara was eight years old in 1969, when a blowout at a Union Oil well off the California coast spilled more than three million gallons of crude along the beaches of Santa Barbara and devastated one of the northern hemisphere’s most prized ecosystems.

He remembers going to the beach with his family and throwing hay on the oil as it washed ashore – a frustratingly inadequate gesture that stayed with him as he later built a career as one of California’s top environmental lawyers.

Last week, Massara was back in Santa Barbara, surveying the damage of the latest of many spills along California’s staggeringly beautiful central coast and lamenting how little has changed in the past 46 years. An oil slick stretching for miles is once again choking fish and wildlife, and again local residents are flocking to foul-smelling, blackened beaches to do what little they can to help with the cleanup.

“Instead of hay, now we have five-gallon buckets and hand shovels,” Massara said. “We’ve gotten really sophisticated.”

This time, the rupture is in a pipeline running close to the Pacific coast highway near Refugio state beach, a popular spot on a long, undeveloped stretch of coastline north of Santa Barbara. The Texas-based operator, Plains All American Pipeline, has estimated that up to 105,000 gallons leached into a storm drain before the supply was cut off, and that about 20,000 gallons of that travelled the extra quarter-mile to the ocean.

The company has described these figures as a “worst-case scenario” and expects them to go down, whereas environmental activists including Massara who have viewed the 11-mile slick expect the numbers to go up, perhaps dramatically.

Almost everything about the spill – the speed with which it was discovered and the pump turned off, the pace of the response, the quality of maintenance on the pipe and the company’s adherence to a knot of local, state and federal regulations – is mired in controversy and remains subject to multiple investigations. The damage, though, is already starkly apparent.

The Santa Barbara Channel – spanning the coast and a number of offshore islands – is sometimes known as the Galápagos of the north, because of its abundance of blue and humpback whales, porpoises, dolphins and migratory seabirds. The area is also a huge draw for surfers and tourists, who would ordinarily be mobbing both Refugio and the nearby El Capitan beach for the Memorial Day weekend. They are now likely to stay away for the summer, if not into next year.

All this is depressingly familiar to activists who have watched for decades as energy companies, lured by rich oil deposits off Santa Barbara in particular, have set up operations along the central coast, exploiting the relative political weakness and sparse populations of the local counties and finding loopholes and contradictions among the federal, state and local authorities.

“This is just another in a long line of real disappointments related to oil exploration,” Massara said. “We get repeated assurances from industry advocates that these types of accidents are a thing of the past, when in fact they are routine and to be expected.”

Once, the big player was Union Oil, known locally as Unocal (now merged into Chevron). In the early 1990s, one of its pipelines was discovered to have sprung leaks in at least 90 places, spilling millions of gallons of diluent into the Guadalupe sand dunes, a place of almost mystical beauty 55 miles north of Santa Barbara where Cecil B DeMille shot The Ten Commandments in 1923.

The company was later found to have known about the leaks and lied about them, even after a mysterious sheen started appearing in the ocean and sea lions and seals were found dead on the beach. A huge restoration effort has been under way since.

Another leaky Unocal pipeline operation at Avila Beach, once a semi-secret hippy hangout further north, proved so damaging – about 400,000 gallons escaped over a 45-year period – that the entire town had to be dismantled and rebuilt at company expense, after which it re-emerged as a boutique resort at odds with its original character.

The oil and gas industries have encountered plenty of resistance over the decades, restricting their room for manoeuvre, but the outrage invariably unleashed after each spill or revelation of industry malfeasance has never adequately protected the public from the problems everyone is anxious to avoid.

The 1969 Santa Barbara spill created a national wave of environmental legislation to preserve America’s coasts, enhance air and water quality and protect endangered species, but it did not lead to the outright ban on offshore drilling that many had expected.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, created multiple new safety obligations for oil and gas companies. But it did not, for example, require pipeline operators to install automatic shut-off valves – an issue already featuring prominently in the ongoing Santa Barbara investigation.

Plains All American would still have been obliged to have the automatic valves if it had been subject to Santa Barbara County rules, but the company went to court in the 1990s and argued successfully that since its pipeline network crossed state lines its safety requirements should be subject to federal, not local, control.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center, the leading advocacy group on oil and gas exploration in the Santa Barbara area. “The technology existed to shut the pipeline automatically. If they’d had it, there would have been no leak into the ocean.”

Plains All American have also been subject to an inadequate inspection regime. For years, the Department of Transportation in Washington subcontracted the job of inspecting its California pipelines to the state fire marshal’s office. But the fire marshals handed the job back in 2013, saying they did not have the resources.

Now the job falls to the DoT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is also underfunded. No government inspection of any sort has taken place since 2012.

The frustrations are felt on the industry side, too. After decades of failed attempts to reach what government scientists say may be as much as six billion barrels of oil in untapped offshore deposits near Santa Barbara, many of the more established energy companies like Chevron and Exxon have abandoned their coastal operations.

And that, according to Mark Massara, carries its own dangers, because successor companies are taking over concessions close to depletion and are thus more likely to cut corners for the sake of the bottom line.

“As newcomers try to squeeze last available resources out of these leases,” Massara said, “the likelihood of additional spills goes up and there’s even less accountability. That’s the prelude for a really difficult future.” © Guardian News and Media 2015