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21,000 Gallons of Oil Just Spilled Near Santa Barbara

An underwater pipeline was the culprit for a crude oil spill in the Pacific

(Theo Allofs/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

On beaches in Santa Barbara, California there’s the unmistakable sheen of spilled oil after a broken transport pipeline caused 21,000 gallons of crude oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday. Now, report The Los Angeles Times’ Matt Hamilton and Javier Panzar, officials are trying to assess just how much environmental damage will be caused by the spill. 

They report that though the leak was stopped by U.S. Coast Guard crews and the pipeline has been shut off, crude oil is now washing up on shore at places like Refugio State Beach, where a woman alerted authorities after she smelled fumes. The spill was tracked to a pipeline owned and maintained by Plains All American Pipeline, a publicly-traded company that stores, markets, and transports petroleum gas. 

“Crude pooled in a culvert before spilling into the Pacific, where it created a four-mile-long sheen extending about 50 yards into the water,” write Hamilton and Panzar. KEYT’s Oscar Flores notes that the spill has been classified as “medium” by the a Coast Guard official who also stated that cleanup crews recovered the equivalent of about 20 barrels of oil using a boom.

It’s not the first time Plains All American Pipeline has been blamed for a spill. Flores writes that the company has a history of serious spills in multiple states. In 2010, the EPA worked out a deal with the company to force it to upgrade its pipelines in exchange for resolution of multiple Clean Water Act violations, including the discharge of more than 273,000 gallons of crude oil in a three-year period. 

Over the days and weeks that follow, volunteers and experts will work to save local wildlife and restore beaches. But many will be reminded of another Santa Barbara spill — one that, when it occurred in 1969, was the largest in American history. On January 28, 1969, an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil gushed into Santa Barbara Channel — a disaster that destroyed local bird populations, shocked the public, and led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Sanctuaries System.

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