On the morning of May 19, 2015, an underground pipeline ruptured off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, spilling up to 105,000 gallons of toxic crude oil along Refugio State Beach. A class action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles alleges the oil spill has caused profound economic and environmental damages to the region, harming the water, wildlife and beaches.

What’s the Problem?

A 24-inch pipeline that delivers crude oil from offshore drilling rigs to refineries inland ruptured, spilling up to 101,000 gallons including an estimated 21,000 gallons that washed into a storm drain and flowed out to sea. The spill spanned 9 miles along the coast, forcing the closure of 2 state beaches and prompting an indefinite fishing ban.

Ruptured Pipeline Badly Corroded: PHMSA Report

The pipeline ruptured along a badly corroded section that had worn away to a fraction of an inch thick, according to preliminary findings released by the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The agency said investigators found corrosion had degraded the pipe wall thickness to 1/16 of an inch at the break site, and that there was a 6 inch gash at the bottom of the pipe.

PHMSA also noted that the break point was near 3 repairs made because of corrosion found in 2012. The report found that 82% of the pipe wall had worn away.

“There is pipe that can survive 80 percent wall loss,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., which investigates pipeline incidents. “When you’re over 80 percent, there isn’t room for error at that level.”

Gov. Brown Declares State of Emergency

California Governor Jerry Brown has issued an emergency proclamation for Santa Barbara County in response to yesterday’s oil spill, according to ABC News. The move frees up state funding and resources to help expedite the cleanup effort.

“This emergency proclamation cuts red tape and helps the state quickly mobilize all available resources,” Brown said. “We will do everything necessary to protect California’s coastline.”

Environmental Impact

Spilled oil poses serious threats to both human health and the environmental ecosystem. It affects surface resources and underwater organisms that are a vital part of the complex food chain which includes human food resources. Oil spills can harm the environment by causing physical damages that directly impact wildlife and their habitats (such as coating birds or mammals in oil), and the toxicity of the oil itself, which can be poisonous to exposed organisms.

As of June 3, at least 36 sea lions, 9 dolphins and 87 birds in the area have died, officials said. Another 32 sea lions, 6 elephant seals and 58 birds were rescued and were being treated.

Cleanup Costs Top $60 Million

Cleaning up the thousands of gallons of crude oil that spilled into the ocean off the Santa Barbara coast last month has cost more than $60 million, or about $3 million per day, according to the Los Angeles Times. The hefty price tag only accounts for cleanup costs to date; it does not include financial damage claims from individuals and businesses affected by the spill, according to Plains spokeswoman Meredith Mathews.

Fisherman Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Pipeline Owner

A commercial fisherman has filed a class action lawsuit against Plains All American Pipeline, the owner of the ruptured pipeline. The complaint, filed by Stace Cheverez in federal court in Los Angeles, alleges that the spill caused profound economic damages:

“In the short term, the oil from Plains All American’s ruptured pipeline has closed fishing grounds and shellfish areas, and caused canceled reservations from tourists who otherwise would be spending their money on hotels, restaurants, kayaking or surf trips, and fishing charters,” the lawsuit said.

Cheverez further contends that Plains has a poor safety record and didn’t have proper equipment in place to prevent a spill, such as valves that would have automatically shut down the pipeline in the event of a leak. The suit, which alleges negligence and liability under state and federal laws, does not specify damages, but said they will exceed $5 million. Cheverez is seeking class action status for fishermen and other businesses who suffered economic losses as a result of the spill.

Property Owner Sues Plains Over Oil Spill

A class action lawsuit has been filed by Santa Barbara County homeowner Alexandra Geremia, alleging that Plains’ broken pipeline was not equipped with an automatic shut-off system that could have prevented such a large spill from occurring. Geremia claims that her home, which is just north of Refugio State Beach, has been ‘bombarded’ with an oil sheen and tarballs that prevent her from walking on the beach. Calling Plains’ oil spill cleanup efforts “unsatisfactory,” the class action alleges the spill will affect Geremia’s property value for years to come.

Plains All American Pipeline Settlement

In August 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Justice Department announced that Plains All American Pipeline and several of its subsidiaries had agreed to spend approximately $41 million to upgrade more than 10,000 miles of crude oil pipelines in the U.S. The settlement was reached to resolve violations for 10 oil spills that occurred between June 2004 and September 2007 in:

  • Ellis, Kansas (East Spring Creek)
  • Houston, Texas (Bull Creek Canal)
  • Iraan, Texas (Pecos River)
  • Longview, Texas (Sabine River)
  • Osage County, Oklahoma (tributary of Pond Creek)
  • Tensas Parish, Louisiana (tributary of Big Lake)
  • Vealmoor, Texas (Colorado River)
  • Vealmoor, Texas (Glen Creek)
  • Waskom, Texas ­­(tributary to Harrison Bayou)
  • Westbrook, Texas (Iatan Creek)

The spills ranged in size from 2.5 barrels (105 gallons) to 4,500 barrels (189,000 gallons), and were caused by corrosion of the pipelines. The settlement required Plains to pay an additional $3.25 million in civil penalty.

Oil Spill Prompts State of Emergency in Santa Barbara County: KTLA News Video

Criminal Charges Against Pipeline Operator Possible, Attorney General Says

California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced this week that her office is weighing potential criminal charges against Plains All American Pipeline after last month’s catastrophic oil spill. “We’re going to go where the evidence takes us,” Harris told reporters, saying she was working with Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s office to determine what exactly went wrong — and why.

NASA Maps Reveal Damage From Oil Spill

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has deployed an aircraft carrying a specialized instrument to test the ability of imaging spectroscopy to map tar on area beaches, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA’s Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, Next Generation (AVIRIS-NG) instrument uses spectroscopic measurement of energy reflected off the Earth to analyze surface properties. In this case, AVIRIS-NG attempted to map the presence of tarballs on California beaches using direct, on-the-ground observations to verify the data.

California Beaches Nearly Cleaned

More than 87 miles of oil-stained California beaches have been cleaned since last month’s pipeline rupture, according to the Refugio response team. “Of the 96.5 miles of shoreline surveyed in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, 91 percent have met cleanup goals,” the command said in its latest operational update. “Clean areas will continue to be monitored for re-oiling which may occur, especially with the natural oil seeps in the area.” 

Fishing Resumes Off Santa Barbara Coast

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is allowing fishing to resume in waters that were closed after last month’s oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast, according to Fox News. CDFW officials reopened the 138 square mile section of the Pacific Ocean yesterday, after scientists determined that fish caught in the area pose no threat to human health.

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