A Beach of an Oil Spill

Santa Barbara’s pristine coastline is now coated in crude.

May 20, 2015

Workers clean up an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta
Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

On a typical day, Refugio State Beach, in California's Santa Barbara County, is an idyllic palm-treelined cove—a refuge, if you will. But thanks to an oil pipeline rupture yesterday, its now-blackened sands are the site of a massive cleanup effort. A citizen first reported the leak around noon, and the Coast Guard had stopped it by 3 P.M.—but an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil still spilled onto the shore and into the Pacific Ocean, creating a four-mile-long sheen. There are no reports yet of oil-stricken wildlife, but the area is home to an array of species, such as sea lions and seabirds, as well as migrating whales.

The pipeline, owned by Plains All American, is capable of transporting 150,000 barrels of crude every day, from a facility owned by Exxon Mobil.

If reading this story is giving you déjà vu, there’s good reason. First, Santa Barbara's beaches were fouled with crude oil in 1969 during what was the third-largest oil spill in United States waters. Second, the company owns another pipeline that spilled 10,000 gallons of oil in L.A.'s Atwater Village a year ago. And third, the accident is just the latest addition to the long list of pipeline ruptures and oil train derailments that have taken place in 2015. And since 1995, more than 5,600 major pipeline accidents have killed an average of 18 people annually and cost nearly $7 billion total in damages. This, by the way, is the record for the safest method of energy transportation.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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