Refugio oil spill: What's happening two years later - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Refugio oil spill: What's happening two years later

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Two years ago on May 19, 2015, an oil pipeline failed near Santa Barbara, sending thousands of gallons of oil to the Refugio Beach shore.

"It was devastating to me. It almost doesn't have words. It was just like a tar field," said Janet Wolf, Santa Barbara County District 2 Supervisor.  

The oil pipeline rupture sent more than 140,000 gallons of oil spewing down into the Pacific Ocean, killing more than 200 birds, 106 marine mammals and an unknown number of marine wildlife residing along the surf line.

Workers in hazmat suits spent days crouching over oil-stained beaches scooping up the toxic sludge.

To mark the anniversary, county supervisors met this week, discussing prevention efforts and the lessons learned from mistakes made.

"The response time was huge and one of the most frustrating things about this incident," Wolf said. 

Clean-up efforts didn't begin until 16 to 18 hours after the spill was discovered.

"A lot of that oil made it from the pipeline on shore into the ocean and that never should have happened," said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, the organization that was developed in response to Santa Barbara's first massive oil spill in 1969.

That year, an oil well blew out off the coast, dumping three million gallons of crude oil and coating 35 miles of beaches, killing thousands of animals. This sparked President Richard Nixon to focus on environmental policies.

"Which not only raised a lot of attention and awareness about the risks of offshore development but also led to the enactment of the state and federal environmental protection laws we have today," Krop said. 

Laws that are still in a constant tug of war with state environmental protection bills now colliding with federal goals and regulations.

"Between Congress and the president, there's a tremendous interest in increasing oil and gas development. So even though we haven't had a federal oil lease since 1984, that could change," Krop said. 

For now, since Plains All American stopped all crude oil transport from its Ellwood onshore facility after their 2015 spill, Venoco is decommissioning platform Holly, which has been dry since the spill.

The actual pipe that ruptured, line 901, still sits empty and idle while Plains All American remains under investigation with several pending lawsuits from the county, state and federal governments.

"No one even knows if that pipeline will be replaced, so this issue is going to be going on for some time," Krop said. 

Two years and two oil spills later, the California shoreline and Refugio State Beach continues to be a battleground between environmentalists and pro-oil developers, but with both sides agreeing on one thing - learning from past mistakes to stop history from repeating.

One silver lining, county officials say, is they now have a quicker, more efficient plan ready to respond to any possible oil spills in the future.

Hundreds of marine mammals were rescued during the 2015 spill. While we won't know how many of them survived, one rescue group was able to track some of the birds.

Fifty brown pelicans were captured, covered in crude oil. After hours of cleaning and two weeks of rehabilitation, they were released back into the wild.

UC Davis' Oiled Wildlife Care Network placed tracking devices on 12 of them and the group says the rescue effort was a success. All the birds migrated and survived at least 18 weeks after their release.

"It's heart-warming to see them go home. They do not stop, they do not turn around and say thank you, they just go, and that's a wonderful thing," said Christine Fiorello, PhD, of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, an organization in partnership with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. 

While nearly all transmission signals have since been lost, all the rescued birds had identifying tags. The organization says 31 out of the 50 have been re-sighted these last two years.

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