The California Spill and the Continuance of Harmful Oil Operations
By: Guest Contributor, Brittany Michelson
Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the May 19th Refugio oil spill rakes in billions of dollars (over 43 billion in 2014) while birds, fish, and marine mammals drenched in oil have washed up on the shores of Santa Barbara County. In the initial few days investigators reported that 9.5 miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline had been affected, but oil shifts with trade winds, and signs of oil damage have shown up further south, in the Malibu region.
“We’re sorry this accident has happened, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience to the community,” Plains district manager said in a public statement. Sorry is a mild response when there are oil soaked wildlife struggling to swim and fly, surfers can’t enter the ocean they love, children can’t play freely in the waves, and families can’t enjoy a day at Refugio State beach, a place that Dana Murray, the senior manager of Heal the Bay organization calls “a treasured and protected beach park and a coastal refuge teeming with sensitive wildlife.” The Chumash Native Americans named the Refugio area “Qasil” meaning “beautiful.” It will also now be known as one of the largest coastal oil spills in California history.
And yet Darren Palmer from the pipeline company referred to it as an “inconvenience.” Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr said, “This is more than an inconvenience, this is a disaster.” Whether this incident is viewed as an inconvenience or a disaster depends on the level of respect one has for the natural environment and its inhabitants.
According to disclosures, it took Plains about 90 minutes after the oil spill was confirmed to notify the National Response Center, a clearinghouse for reports of hazardous material releases that coordinates response. In a letter to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein labeled the response to the spill “insufficient.” They also questioned why the line lacked an automatic shut-off valve.
Plains spokesman Patrick Hodgins said. “We’re going to address the issue, we’re going to investigate it with the federal regulators, we’re going to find out what happened and we’re going to make it right.” But how exactly can a disaster of this scope be “made right”? From the moment the oil started spewing from the ruptured pipeline, our fragile coastal ecosystem incurred serious damage.
The damage has harmed the Gaviota coast, a rare Mediterranean-climate region where northern and southern plants and wildlife meet. Research indicates that there are only five such regions in the world, located at the western edges of continents and unique for their biological diversity.
According to Plains, there was a pipeline inspection this May and the one prior to that was in 2012. Two inspections in three years, for a massive oil pipe that has the ability to destroy miles of rich, biodiverse coastline?
Brigid McCormack, the executive director of Audubon California, said, “Time and time again, we’re reminded that the benefits of putting oil so close to our natural treasures are never worth the risk.”
And yet, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy states that there are four offshore platforms linked to two oil processing plants in this coastal area, and despite the Refugio Oil Spill on May 19, Venoco is proposing to substantially expand drilling and production at platform Holly.
The conservancy called on Plains All American and the Unified Command to implement effective cleanup of the spill for as long as it takes. The delayed initial response has caused these additional areas to be affected, which could have been prevented.
The Gaviota Coast is already an endangered area due to urbanization and increasing industrial development, and preservation and conservation efforts were already taking place to protect it.
According to Southern California Public Radio, the timing of the Refugio spill could work to the advantage of environmental groups, as the incident happened days after a federal agency approved Shell’s plan for drilling in the Arctic.
Historically, nature conservation efforts have increased in response to certain devastating incidents. The 3 million gallon oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 was so disastrous, it sparked the environmental movement and various laws to protect the natural world. Artist Bud Bottoms and his group Get Oil Out helped gather 200,000 signatures to get oil rigs removed from the coast. Though that didn’t happen, legislation was passed to protect endangered species, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and the Environmental Defense Center was formed in 1977, which has been trying to block certain drilling projects.
Since the 1969 oil catastrophe forty-six years ago, these disasters are still happening. The Exxon Valdez accident released 11 million gallons off Alaska’s shores in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon spill dumped 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
According to federal records, Plains All American subsidiaries have reported at least 223 accidents along their lines and spilled a combined 864,300 gallons of hazardous liquids since 2006, have been subject to 25 enforcement actions, and tallied damages topping $32 million.
The continued refusal to invest in renewables is highly frustrating. “When we have a huge solar spill around here, we just call it a nice day,” said Dave Davis, CEO and president of the Community Environmental Council.
Will the oil industry ever learn? Will they at some point do justice for our precious environment? Will they ever honor the fact that we share this planet with nature and wildlife; we do not own it.
Brittany Michelson’s work has been published in several literary journals including Role/Reboot, PoemMemoirStory Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, The Whistling Fire, Split Lip Magazine and others. She cares deeply about animals and the environment and lives in Topanga Canyon, CA.