On Tuesday May 19, 2015 a 24-inch pipeline owned by Plains All American ruptured 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. The pipeline was underground, running along the coastal highway, carrying 1,300 barrels of crude oil per hour. When the pipe burst, 101,000 gallons rushed out, and 21,000 gallons made their way down a storm culvert and into the Pacific Ocean.
As of May 22, the oil has spread across 9.5 square miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline. Many animals are affected. This area of ocean is home to dolphins, seals, sea lions, birds, fish, and it serves as a migratory passage for whales. The brown pelican, one of the area’s birds, was just removed from the endangered species list in 2009, and it dives into the oily water to hunt for fish. When the oil is warmed by the sun, it sinks, endangering plants and animals at the bottom of the ocean as well. Oil also blocks light from reaching kelp and coral, which need the light for photosynthesis.
El Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach have been closed until June 4. Fishing has been stopped in the area.
This weekend saw 650 people working on cleanup. The Coast Guard has been monitoring the cleanup and Plains All American is actively involved. Animal casualties include a sea lion, 9 pelicans, 2 dolphins, and numerous fish.
The pipeline, owned by Plains All American, was built in 1987, and inspected in 2012. There were no previous problems. Plains All American has 6,000 miles of pipeline carrying hazardous liquid, going through 20 states. They transport 4 million barrels of crude oil and other liquid fuels daily. Operations in the burst pipeline have been suspended until safety improvements are made, and the company is launching an in-depth analysis of factors contributing to the spill.
Since 2006, Plains All American has committed 175 federal safety and maintenance violations. They have spilled 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids and have damaged $25 million worth of property. 80 accidents were due to corrosion and 70 were due to failures in materials, welds, and other equipment. Since 2007, the company has spent $1.3 billion on maintenance and repair. Of 1,700 operators in the country, Plains All American was 5th in safety and maintenance infractions.
The Santa Barbara oil spill is likely gaining more media attention because in 1969, there was a giant oil spill in the same area. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara was the 3rd largest oil spill in US waters, behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. In its time, it was the biggest oil spill to ever touch US waters. 3 million gallons of crude oil spread across 30 miles of coastline, and it helped spread environmental awareness, spurring the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Does this oil spill measure up to previous oil spills? No. But no oil spill is small. The casualties are great, and it makes us reconsider the value of oil if it comes at such high environmental costs.