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Campers try to rescue an oil-covered bird on Refugio beach. It later swam back into the ocean. (Photo: Noozhawk/Lara Ann Cooper)

Ruptured Pipeline Along California Coast Dumps Crude Oil into Pacific Ocean

'To see this level of spill into such a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch. These waters are known as the Galapagos of North America with numerous species of endangered whales migrating through marine protected areas and off the iconic and beloved Gaviota Coast.'

Jon Queally

An oil pipeline that runs along the coast of central California broke on Tuesday, according to officials, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of crude onto local beaches and creating a 4-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean.

"Unfortunately with accidents and oil development, it is not a question of if, but of when." —Owen Bailey, Environmental Defense Center

Initial estimates put the spill at about 21,000 gallons Tuesday, but the Associated Press cited a U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson on Wednesday who said that figure is likely to change after a Wednesday morning flyover gave a better sense of the spill's scope.

The pipeline, which runs parallel to Highway 101 near Santa Barbara, left a slick extending about four miles (6.4 km) along Refugio State Beach, extending about 50 yards into the water, explained Petty Officer Andrea Anderson of the USGC.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The rupture, located along an 11-mile long underground pipe that’s part of a larger oil transport network bound for Kern County, was first reported about noon after a woman at Refugio State Beach in Goleta smelled the crude’s noxious fumes. Coast Guard crews stopped the leak by 3 p.m., said Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrea Anderson.

It’s unclear what caused the break in the pipeline.

After flowing from the pipeline, 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. Officials said winds could send the oil another four miles south toward Isla Vista.

The pipeline, built in 1991 and designed to carry about 150,000 barrels of oil per day, is owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which said in a statement that it shut down the pipe. The culvert was also blocked to prevent more oil from flowing into the ocean, the company said.

By late Tuesday, a thick layer of crude had begun to wash ashore, with black tar smearing the rocks as the brackish tides arrived.

"It is horrible," said Brett Connors, 35, a producer from Santa Monica who said he spotted sea lions swimming in the oil slick. "You want to jump in there and save them."

Local affiliate 23 ABC KERO News offered this raw footage of the coastal areas impacted by the spill:

The location of Tuesday's disaster is not far from the infamous Santa Barbara spill in 1969, the worst of its kind in U.S. history up to that point, which is widely credited with jump-starting the nation's modern environmental movement which took off in the 1970s. 

In response to Tuesday's spill, Owen Bailey, executive director of the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, said his group was closely monitoring the situation both onshore and off, but expressed little surprise that an accident occured with the pipeline.

"Unfortunately with accidents and oil development, it is not a question of if, but of when," Bailey said. "To see this level of spill into such a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch. These waters are known as the Galapagos of North America with numerous species of endangered whales migrating through marine protected areas and off the iconic and beloved Gaviota Coast."

Looking both backward and into the future, Bailey decried the fossil fuel industry as he praised the work of locals groups who have long demanded an energy shift away from oil and gas. "In the wake of the terrible 1969 Santa Barbra oil spill, our communities have fought for many years to protect this as one of the most important environments in all of California," he said. "Looking forward at new, risky  coastal drilling applications from Venoco to drill off Ellwood and Sunset/Exxon to drill from Vandenberg Air Force Base, this is an important reminder that we must redouble our efforts to make safer, cleaner and forward-looking decisions on energy production."

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