Pipeline bursts, spilling oil on California coast

About 21,000 gallons of oil spilled in area of massive 1969 rupture that sparked environmental movement

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The cleanup of a 21,00-gallon oil spill was already underway late Tuesday, hours after a pipeline broke on the central California coast.

The pipeline break created an oil slick stretching for about 4 miles of beach and about 50 yards into the ocean, Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrea Anderson said.

The leak was first reported to county fire officials about noon, and Coast Guard crews stopped the leak by 3 p.m., Anderson added.

“Luckily the source has been stopped and now it’s just a cleanup effort. Hopefully we can get that done quickly,” Coast Guard Lt. Jonathan McCormick told KTLA Thursday evening.

Offshore cleanup was suspended overnight, and the Coast Guard said a morning flyover would allow them to get a better sense of the damage.

Overnight winds are expected to push the spill down the coast and closer to Santa Barbara.

The 24-inch pipeline is owned by Plains All American Pipeline, which said it shut down the flow of oil and the culvert carrying the oil to the ocean was blocked.

“Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact,” the company said in a statement.

The accident occurred on the same stretch of  Santa Barbara Channel coastline that was the site of a massive oil spill in 1969 that is recognized as a key event in the development of the U.S. environmental movement. 

The Coast Guard, county emergency officials and state parks officials coordinated the effort to clean up the spill.

Boats from the nonprofit collective Clean Seas also were providing help but were having trouble because so much of the oil was so close to the shore, Coast Guard spokeswoman Jennifer Williams said. About 850 gallons of oil had been recovered from the water, Williams said on Tuesday night.

There was no immediate estimate of how long the cleanup might take.

Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said the pipeline was on land near Refugio State Beach. 

Aerial video footage of the area soon after the spill showed oil stretching out from the beach about 150 feet into the ocean in some areas. It also showed a ruptured pipeline inland across the highway, from which the oil reportedly ran downhill into the ocean.

Zaniboni said firefighters responded initially to reports of the smell of gas on the beach. 

“They found about a half-mile slick of dark, black crude oil in the ocean,” he said.

The stretch of coastline is also home to many oil rigs and drilling operations, and small amounts of tar and seepage show up on beaches, but in much smaller amounts.

The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center said such a spill was inevitable with coastal oil development, but still unwelcome.

"To see this level of spill into such a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch,” the EDC said in a statement. The group expressed special worry for the many species of whale that migrate through the area.

Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said, “Every time we hear about an oil spill, we hold our breath and hope it won't get worse.”

She said in her statement that the spill was especially troubling because no one caught it “until several barrels of oil had already tumbled into the ocean.”

The 1969 spill was the largest ever in U.S. waters at the time. Several hundred thousand gallons from a blowout on an oil platform were spilled, and thousands of sea birds were killed along with many marine mammals.

It was later surpassed in size by 1989's Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska and the 2010 Gulf oil spill off Louisiana.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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