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UPDATE: California’s Refugio Oil Spill Larger Than Estimated

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It’s like 16 trucks pulling up to the beach and dumping every drop of oil into the Pacific Ocean.

Controversy is brewing over just how much crude oil fouled pristine beaches and ocean waters in the Golden State as a result of the Refugio oil spill in May 2015.

On February 17, a preliminary factual report issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicates an additional 1,000 barrels of oil may have ended up in our ocean. This puts the total spill volume at an estimated 3,400 barrels or 142,800 gallons.

That’s like having 16 trucks pull up to the beach and dumping every drop of oil into the Pacific Ocean to spread towards unique and irreplaceable places like the Naples Reef State Marine Conservation Area and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Area, which was established to protect and celebrate the coastal culture practiced by Chumash Indians for millennia.

The federal regulators based its calculations on the purging of affected pipelines required as part of an investigation into what caused the spill. The Plains All-America Pipeline Company put the figure at 2,400 barrels (100,800 gallons), which was later raised to 2,860 barrels. Now a third-party investigator is working to reconcile the difference. Also of interest in the report is that 997 barrels of oil were recovered by the oil spill response—far lower than any estimate of the overall spill volume.

Towards recovery and restoration

Federal and state agencies designated as “natural resource trustees” have assembled to conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to quantify the resource damages Plains All-American must pay as part of a recovery and restoration effort. That sum is separate from any legal liability that could stem from potential findings of negligence or wrong-doing discovered in separate investigations.

One thing is clear: it will be a challenge to assign a price to the loss of the spill zone’s rich ecological, commercial, recreational and aesthetic values and then choose projects that can best restore these losses.

It is relatively straight-forward to put a dollar value to the lost days of commercial fishing during the lengthy fishing closure imposed after the spill but how will monetary value be pinned on potential damage from negative perceptions of the region’s seafood quality?

Reduced access to the area’s favored recreational fishing sites could be tackled through construction or improvements in facilities like boat ramps and launch sites but will that address the full impact to the recreational experience in Santa Barbara?

As agencies and communities grapple with these issues, the investigation into the cause of the oil spill—which the report identifies generally as corrosion—has prompted a full shut down and partial removal of pipelines transporting oil and gas produced offshore to distant onshore facilities. This has resulted in several offshore oil and gas platforms stopping production. Energy companies are requesting permission to move oil via even riskier transportation modes like trucks and rail lines. So far, the only exception made was for oil remaining in affected pipelines and storage tanks to prevent further corrosion and head off another disaster.

Meanwhile, tar balls washed up on beaches over 100 miles from the spill site.

The once pristine beaches and nearshore waters in my state are reeling from a toxic impact that will continue to reverberate through complex ecosystems and habitats. Just how these damages are assessed and addressed, and how accountability for the spill is applied, will remain an important focus for Ocean Conservancy.

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