More Questions than Answers in California Oil Spill

Tens of thousands of liters of spilled oil from a broken underground pipeline threatened protected waters and wildlife on California's southern coast Wednesday, as US federal and local authorities rushed to contain its spread.

By Valerie Hamilton

dpa, Berlin

Tens of thousands of liters of spilled oil from a broken underground pipeline threatened protected waters and wildlife on California's southern coast Wednesday, as US federal and local authorities rushed to contain its spread.

The spill has blackened white sands at Refugio State Beach, near the coastal city of Santa Barbara, and 188 kilometers north-west of Los Angeles. Oil spread by wind and waves left a greasy sheen over 23 square kilometers of Pacific coastal waters extending to the south and east.

The oil spilled Tuesday when an underground pipeline along the coast ruptured, leaking as much as 400,000 liters of oil into the soil and spilling from a culvert into the Pacific Ocean, authorities and pipeline operators said.

A day later, six response vessels were working with floating booms to control the drift, while Coast Guard vessels skimmed oil from the surface of the ocean, Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams said.

On land, workers and volunteers were shoveling contaminated sand from Refugio State Beach into red buckets to be carried away. They planned to flush oil from slick rocky areas into the ocean, so it could be more easily removed from the water's surface, Williams added.

Local media published photos of cleanup crews cataloging dead marine animals on the beach, including an octopus, fish and crustaceans.

Authorities said they would not have a count of animals injured or killed by oil contamination until rescue crews returned from fieldwork later in the day, but Captain Mark Crossland, an official with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said wildlife had "undoubtedly" been affected.

Operations to clean up the spill and control its spread will continue through the night, "24-7," Greg Armstrong, chairman and chief executive of Texas-based Plains All-American Pipeline, which controls the pipeline and is paying for the cleanup effort, said.

Plains "deeply, deeply" regrets the accident, Armstrong told media at an evening news conference.

Rick McMichael, the company's director of pipeline operations, said that their calculations showed that in a "worst-case scenario," an estimated 400,000 liters of oil could have poured from the broken pipeline before it was secured Tuesday, and 80,000 litres could have flowed into the Pacific.

Investigators have not yet discovered what caused the break in the 24-inch pipeline, which Plains built in 1991 and had operated without incident until Tuesday.

McMichael said pump stations in the area reported mechanical problems late Tuesday morning, but it was unclear whether the problems were a cause or an effect of the pipe rupture.

Residents nearby discovered the leak when they noticed an "overwhelming" smell Tuesday afternoon, local media reported.

Officials investigated and found oil leaking from the pipeline on land, pouring into a culvert that drained into the ocean at Refugio State Beach, local officials told media.

Local authorities closed Refugio on Tuesday and nearby El Capitan State Beach on Wednesday, evacuating campers preparing for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend. State park authorities said the beaches would remain closed for at least a week.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, told the Los Angeles Times she was worried about the spill's effects on a stretch of coastline and waters she called "one of the most biologically rich places on the planet."

She cited possible risks to migrating gray whales, blue whales and endangered humpbacks in slick-ridden coastal waters, as well as rare seabirds and coastal endangered species on oil-tarred land.

"It's a very, very sensitive, important place and we don't know what the eventual harm will be," she said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Spilled oil poses "serious threats" to marine environments, including physical harm caused to wildlife and their habitats by contact with oil and toxicity in the food chain, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA is responsible for management of oil spills on land, and is sharing command of the Refugio oil spill with the US Coast Guard, which is responsible for management of oil spills in coastal waters.

There are almost 14,000 oil spills in the United States every year, according to the EPA.

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(c)2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

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