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South Coast Oil Spill One Year Later: What we've learned - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

South Coast Oil Spill One Year Later: What we've learned

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This past week, we've taken a look at the impacts of the massive South Coast oil spill, from wildlife to criminal charges and the environmental impact.

Here's a recap of what we've learned from the Refugio Beach disaster, one year later:

The environmental impacts from the 143,000-gallon oil spill along seven miles of beautiful coastline north of Santa Barbara won't be known for years to come.

"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 one of the researchers on the spill, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper Jenna Driscoll.

The biggest issue: figuring out what oil is natural and what's not.

"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," said Driscoll.

One thing was clear: the oil coating brown pelicans, California sea lions, elephant seals, dolphins, fish and many other birds was from the spill. 195 birds and 106 mammals were killed. According to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, 63 marine mammals and 57 birds were treated and have since been released into the wild.

"You never know the true impact of an oil spill just by the number of animals that come in because there's always the animals that die at sea and they sink or they are never recovered," said Kyra Mills-Parker, Deputy Director of Field Operations with Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

Investigators found the spill was a result of a corroded pipeline. It had been inspected, but the corrosion was not detected.

There are three state bills now signed into law to prevent another oil spill disaster:

  • SB 295 requires state pipelines to be inspected annually by a fire marshal
  • SB414 requires faster oil response times and more effective cleanup efforts
  • AB 864 forces old and new pipelines in coastal zones to have  the best-known technology, such has high-tech shut off valves

Keep in mind, at the time of the spill, this pipeline was federally inspected and under less stringent regulations.

"We have great new state laws. When that pipeline reopens, we need to make sure it is subject to state regulation and not federal regulation," said Linda Krop with the Santa Barbara Environmental Defense Center.

KSBY News reached out several times to Plains All American Pipeline, the company operating the pipeline. The only time we heard back was this past Tuesday, when local and state prosecutors announced they were filing 46 criminal charges against Plains.

The company says the charges are without merit and it plans a vigorous defense.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris said she expects a multi-million dollar settlement.

This is the first step in holding Plains accountable and we are committed to putting all the resources that are necessary into seeing this case through," Harris said.

Plains, plus an employee who worked as an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist and faces three charges, will be arraigned in Santa Barbara next month.

As for life at Refugio State Beach, the future of the oil business remains to be seen, but the oil-slicked beach from a year ago is no longer brown and the waves are back to their summertime shine.

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