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California oil spill: Excavation of ruptured pipe may bring answers

REFUGIO STATE BEACH, Calif. — Clues as to what caused a 24-inch oil pipeline to rupture along California’s picturesque Gaviota Coast remain buried beneath tons of oil-contaminated earth, but oil company workers and federal regulators hope to begin excavating the pipe Thursday and get their first glimpse of the breach.

Michelle Rogow, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a federal on-scene coordinator for the Santa Barbara-area spill, told reporters at a news conference late Wednesday that the excavation could provide some answers.

“Our hope is that … we’ll be able to have a little bit more information as the pipeline is uncovered,” Rogow said. “The investigation work will likely go on for some time.”

Pipeline company officials and federal, state and local agencies said cleanup would begin to accelerate as additional workers arrived on scene and pipeline crews received permission to work around the clock.

The ruptured pipeline, which can carry up to 6.3 million gallons of crude a day, is operated by Plains All American Pipeline and was built in 1987. It had just undergone a routine inspection, but company officials had not yet been told of its findings, they said.

Plains President and Chief Executive Greg Armstrong arrived in Santa Barbara on Wednesday afternoon after flying from Houston. At Wednesday’s news conference, Armstrong offered repeated apologies.

“We don’t feel very good at all about it,” Armstrong said. “We’re here to make it right.”

The spill was confirmed at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday by a company employee after a strong odor was reported. Based on flow rates, up to 105,000 gallons of crude may have spilled from the pipe before it was shut down.

On Thursday, work crews will begin to determine exactly where all the leaked oil has gone. Roughly 21,000 gallons are believed to have entered coastal waters, stretching over 9 square miles.

Related: Oil spill in Santa Barbara County may have released up to 105,000 gallons

The oil entered the ocean after pouring into a drainage culvert and passing beneath the 101 Freeway and a set of railroad tracks before emerging on the beach.

On Thursday, workers should begin the challenging task of clearing the culvert, which was blocked in the effort to stop the spill.

“We hope that we’ll implement a plan to get into the culvert and oil that has been washed down and begin to mitigate areas that are up gradient of the shoreline to ensure no more oil heads into the beaches here,” Rogow said.

A cleanup force of roughly 300 people would be augmented by an unspecified number of workers, including members of the California Conservation Corps, according to officials.

“You should see and expect even more responders on the beach,” said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams, incident commander and federal on-scene coordinator for oil spill response.

Williams and other officials, however, urged residents and visitors to steer clear of the spill areas, saying they posed a health and safety risk.

Mark Crossland of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told residents not to try and rescue injured or oiled animals they may encounter. Instead, they should report the animal by calling (877) 823-6926.

Crossland declined to say how many oil-affected animals had been found, saying officials were waiting for all response crews to return from the field before reporting a number.

No human injuries have been reported, officials said, although some campers at Refugio State Beach, near the spill site, reported feeling nauseous due to the heavy odor of oil. The park has since been closed to the public along with nearby El Capitan.

Pipeline company chief executive Armstrong told reporters late Wednesday that “we deeply, deeply regret that this incident has occurred at all. We apologize for the damage that has been done to the wildlife and the environment, and we’re very sorry for the destruction and inconvenience it has caused on the citizens and the visitors to this area.”

Armstrong said the company had created a response website, www.refugioresponse.com.

“We also have established a financial claims line if you feel like you’ve been impacted by the spill,” Armstrong said. That number is (866) 753-3619.


This article was written by Monte Morin from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.