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Environmental damage from Refugio oil spill still being studied - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Environmental damage from Refugio oil spill still being studied one year later

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This week, KSBY is taking a special look back at one of biggest oil spill disasters in recent history and its environmental impact on the South Coast.

On May 19, 2015, the once-pristine coastline along Refugio State Beach was suddenly contaminated with black tar, the water shined with oil and the sea breeze smelled of petroleum -- all the result of a ruptured underground pipeline made by Plains All American Pipeline that leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean and onto the shore.

Locals quickly recall the oil disaster.

"Last year, we were down here and you kind of noticed the smell, the oil smell more than anything," said Refugio visitor Guy Smith.

NOAA and state agencies are now conducting what's called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment -- a process that evaluates the total impacts of the oil spill. Until that assessment is completed, experts are in a holding pattern.

"We don't truly know the impacts of the spill until we really get to dive into those studies and reveal the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which will take a couple years," said Jenna Driscoll of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, an environmental research nonprofit.

Driscoll says the big issue facing researchers is figuring out what oil is natural and what's not.

"Well that was the problem with the Refugio oil spill is that we do have a lot of natural seepage in our channel, so the ability to distinguish between what's from the oil spill and what's natural seepage wasn't really quite known," Driscoll said.

Just a few months after the Refugio oil spill, kayakers in Goleta noticed a concerning slick on the water and alerted officials.

"Places it was really thin, just a reflection on the water. It had shimmering colors, kind of. Parts of it there was a more gooey brown stuff that was more than just a sheen," said kayak fisherman Ron Hudson.

That was determined to be the result of a highly productive natural oil seep unrelated to the Refugio spill.

"Natural oil seepage kind of fluctuates and so it does look like we're in a time of more seepage in the channel a little bit," said Driscoll.

While tar is common on South Coast beaches, Driscoll and her team are looking at it more closely now.

"We did develop a tarball monitoring program that helps to identify how much tar comes up on the beaches naturally and kind of characterize in a grander scheme what oiling looks like on our shores," Driscoll said.

Guy Smith says the tar he encounters at Refugio is no more than usual.

"It's kind of typical for Santa Barbara and Goleta beaches," Smith said.

Smith initially stayed away from Refugio after the disaster.

"I'd drive by and see all the cleaning crews out and I was refreshed after they left to see that it was really cleaned up really nice," Smith said. "It wasn't as bad as I pictured."

While the environmental impacts of the spill are still somewhat unknown, that isn't keeping people from enjoying this picturesque stretch of coast.

"It's beautiful. It's beautiful. You'd never know. Another gorgeous day in paradise," Smith added.

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