6,000 gallons of oil sopped up in California spill, but fraction of total

Workers in protective suits continue to rake and shovel the black sludge off the Santa Barbara coast

View Full Gallery

More than 6,000 gallons of oil have been raked, skimmed and vacuumed from a spill that stretched 12 miles across the California coast in a cleanup effort that is now in its third day and operating around the clock, officials said Thursday.

But that number represents only a small portion of the 105,000 gallons that investigators said may have spilled following Tuesday's pipeline break near Santa Barbara. Up to a fifth of that amount — about 21,000 gallons — has reached the ocean, according to estimates. 

More than 300 workers in protective suits continue to rake and shovel the black sludge off the beaches. The smell of petroleum continues to permeate through the area as specialized boats try to contain the slick, Al Jazeera's Jacob Ward reported. 

To make matters worse, the oil spill occurred during marine mammals’ migratory season, when humpback whales, sea lions and porpoises typically swim through the affected area.

The spill — which occurred when an underground pipeline running parallel to a coastal highway inexplicably burst — caused Gov. Edmund Brown on Wednesday night to declare a state of emergency.

“We will do everything necessary to protect California's coastline,” Brown said in a statement alongside the emergency proclamation.

The chief executive of the company that runs the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline LP, was at the site of the spill Wednesday and apologized for it.

“We deeply, deeply regret that this incident has occurred at all,” Chairman and CEO Greg Armstrong said at a news conference. “We apologize for the damage that it's done to the wildlife and to the environment.”

Environmental groups used the spill as a new opportunity to highlight the dangers of fossil fuels and remind people of the area's history with oil spills.

The Santa Barbara coastline was the scene of a much larger spill in 1969 — the largest in U.S. waters at the time — that is credited with galvanizing the American environmental movement.

“Big Oil comes with big risks — from drilling to delivery,” said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Santa Barbara learned that lesson over 40 years ago when offshore drilling led to disaster.”

Kathryn Phillips, California director of environmental group Sierra Club, added: “Every time we hear about an oil spill, we hold our breath and hope it won't get worse.”

“How many more signals do we need from the oil industry that public health and the environment aren't at the top of its list when it decides how much to invest in creating its products?

“It's time we all demand better from this incredibly wealthy industry,” she said in a statement.

Armstrong, meanwhile, said the company had received permission to continue cleanup operations around the clock and vowed that they “will remain here until everything has been restored to normal.” However, there was no estimate on the cost of the cleanup or how long it might take.

Federal regulators from the Department of Transportation, which oversees oil pipeline safety, are investigating the leak's cause, the pipe's condition and possible regulatory violations. The 24-inch pipe built in 1991 had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to Plains. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the company accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006, according to federal records. The infractions involved pump failure, equipment malfunction, pipeline corrosion and operator error.

The soiled shores and pungent stench of petroleum caused state parks officials to close Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach, both popular campgrounds west of Santa Barbara, over the Memorial Day weekend.

Still, tourists were drawn to pull off the Pacific Coast Highway to eye the disaster from overlooking bluffs.

“It smells like what they use to pave the roads,” said Fan Yang, of Indianapolis, who was hoping to find cleaner beaches in Santa Barbara, about 20 miles away. “I'm sad for the birds — if they lose their habitat.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter