As crews worked Friday to bag, mop and contain the oil in the Santa Barbara Channel from this week’s pipeline rupture, local businesses worried about the impact the spill would have over Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff of summer.
“As far as the quality of my supply and the risk of contamination, the customer should have no concerns,” said Brian Colgate, owner of the Santa Barbara Fish Market at the harbor. Nevertheless, he added, “perception is often reality with consumers, so if they hear the waters have been contaminated, they assume the fish will be, too.”
He is concerned that business might be stagnant over the holiday weekend — and that it may take time to rebound.
About 350 spill responders and three skimmer vessels are working to collect the oil; an additional 300 responders and 15 skimmers are to arrive over the weekend. Crews have shown promising signs of containing the spill, though the oil slick expanded from nine miles long on Wednesday to 12 miles on Friday.
But Rick McMichael, senior director of operations at Plains All American Pipeline, said vessels on the water “recovered very little of the watery oil mix” Friday and will seek other recovery methods.
Of the 105,000 gallons that leaked Tuesday from the underground pipeline, about one-fifth of it is thought to have reached the ocean. An estimated 8,400 gallons of the oil-water mixture have been removed from the channel.
Along the coast of Santa Barbara, spring brings strong winds and choppy waters, which can inhibit the booming efforts in the water. Crews temporarily suspended operations late Thursday afternoon because of weather and sea conditions.
“In many ways, the cleanup effort is at the mercy of Mother Nature,” said Lt. Donnie Brzuska, a U.S. Coast Guard public information officer.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 50 dead invertebrates, including octopuses, lobsters and jellyfish, as well as three dead birds and a dead dolphin. According to one department official, that number is expected to rise. Six pelicans, two sea lions and one elephant seal were found covered with oil in the days after the leak. They will be cleaned and rehabilitated.
The coast along the Santa Barbara Channel is known for its beautiful and diverse wildlife, but it’s also home to a highly sensitive ecosystem in which even small environmental incidents can have significant consequences. Residents have been arriving at the beach, hoping to help, said Erica Buckley of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“Unfortunately, we have to turn them away,” Buckley said. “Without the proper equipment they may be putting themselves in danger, and without the proper training they may make the situation worse.”
Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach, both popular destinations for visitors over the Memorial Day weekend, will be closed, as will their campsites. As the cleanup effort extends to the culvert that runs underneath Highway 101, the major route will be reduced to one lane in either direction, ensuring backups.
Oil spills are a sensitive subject in Santa Barbara County, where many residents vividly recall a 1969 oil spill that dumped up to 100,000 barrels of oil into the channel and ranks as the third-largest spill in U.S. history. Some residents see the two incidents as resulting from the same set of symptoms — a failing infrastructure under the control of oil companies and a general overreliance on fossil fuels.
On Thursday afternoon, 150 protesters gathered in the courtyard next to the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Becca Claassen, who serves as Santa Barbara County organizer for District-based consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, said the incident Tuesday served as a catalyst for many residents to attend. Fossil-fuel dependence has been a hot-button issue there, largely because of an effort to expand drilling.
“A lot of residents were distraught over what happened in the [Santa Barbara] channel,” Claassen said, “which prompted them to come out and have their voices heard.”
The protesters called on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to implement an emergency moratorium on fracking in state waters. In 2014, 200 applications were approved for steam-injected oil wells in Santa Barbara County, and so far this year 629 applications have been submitted.
Following the protest, many participants attended an energy-use forum at the courthouse. Planned months ago, it addressed Santa Barbara’s blackout-prone energy grid with suggestions to move from a dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewable energy generated within the county.
Matt Renner, executive director of the World Business Academy, which organized the forum, said the incident in the Santa Barbara Channel should serve as a “wake-up call” for residents.
“We have a unique opportunity to build a world-class energy system that can make this county fossil-fuel free in less than a decade — but we must act now,” he said.
Gregg Hart, a member of the Santa Barbara City Council and panelist at the forum, adopted a similar tone. “The oil spill should be a visceral reminder that we need to move faster on our local energy transition,” Hart said. “If this doesn’t get our feet moving, I don’t know what will.”
No cause has been identified for the rupture.
Rodd is a freelance writer.