The Frontlines of Santa Barbara’s Oil Spill Clean-up - Oceana USA
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May 28, 2015

The Frontlines of Santa Barbara’s Oil Spill Clean-up

Safety First

It is day nine of the Santa Barbara oil spill and I began my morning with a four-hour hazardous communication training. Oil is really a nasty substance, made of many hazardous natural and added compounds. After seeing the devastating effects of oil spills on ecosystems, it is clear that oil and water don’t mix for a reason. Only time will tell what lasting effects this spill will inflict on Santa Barbara’s beaches, ecosystems and wildlife. Equally important to consider in oil spill response is the health and safety of responders. Today’s response training focused on oil chemistry and personal safety as the chemical makeup of oil can cause long-term neurological effects (attacking the brain and spinal cord) and cancer among other inflictions.  

While special breathing equipment is no longer necessary at this point in Santa Barbara’s oil spill response, volunteer workers should still don personal protective equipment (called PPEs) to prevent skin exposure to oil. Once workers leave the clean-up areas there is a specific technique to removing the PPEs — cut off the booties that cover shoes, remove the hazmat suit inside out, shake off the first layer of thick gloves, then remove the second set of surgical-like gloves. Volunteers go through this decontamination process to prevent transfer of any oil on the protective gear to their skin or clothing and to prevent re-contamination of sensitive sites being cleaned. The PPEs are one time use only, considered hazardous waste and disposed of accordingly.

Upon receipt of my certificate of training completion, I was invited into the communication command center at the Santa Barbara Emergency Operations Center. I paused slightly upon entering, a little overwhelmed by the pop-up operation center where hundreds of people circulate through in a given day. Large wall screens projected a map of the spill area and flashed updates inside this operations hub. Oil spill response plans, contact lists and other relevant documents also papered the walls and the room was filled with computers and staff circulating from meetings, to emails, to calls, to site visits and flyovers, to press conferences and an array of other operational duties. Overtime has become normal working hours for these folks to deploy the necessary response operations and provide the public with daily progress and statistical updates on the impacts and clean-up.

Ride-Along to Impacted Sites

To my surprise and excitement, I was able to go on a ride-along with a California Fish and Game warden to safely see a first-hand account of the impacted areas or ‘hot’ sites as they are also called. (Thank you to the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response and Officer Amanda Johnson for the opportunity!)

Standing on a bluff overlooking Refugio Beach, and the closest to a bird-eye’s view as I could get, I saw that much of the approximately 21,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean has been recovered or dissipated. The thick oil slicks have reduced to sheen, and crashing waves leave tar behind on the rocks that line Refugio Beach. White and yellow booms, used to contain surface oil and prevent it from spreading, still line the affected area and an array of vessels serve as a floating clean-up battalion. Plastic bags filled with oil are stored on the temporary floating infrastructure until they can be properly disposed as hazardous waste — there must be thousands of these bags in the large containers aboard the vessels alone. Stacked oil bags in the beach parking lot look like a seawall. A helicopter flies overhead to monitor any remaining surface oil — observational data which then is compared against modeling forecasts to provide information about changes to speed and direction of ocean currents.

What is still inescapable after more than a week is the noxious smell of oil that overwhelms the senses in a very unwelcome way. While air monitoring has been conducted and the results show that it is now safe to be around these ‘hot’ sites without wearing re-breathers or face masks, it’s so overpowering that over time it renders me nauseated and a little light headed. It is important to be cognizant of personal sensitivity as acute exposure can lower blood pressure and decrease respiration. This sensitivity is a short term effect to the sulfur smell, not exposure to harmful gasses. This is very different from chronic exposure or actual contact with the oil itself.

While on site, I watch as workers take samples of the oil among the sand and rocks to send to a lab for identification called fingerprinting. All oil has its own chemical identity, a unique fingerprint. Adding to the complexity of the clean-up and monitoring efforts is the fact that Santa Barbara waters have natural oil seeps that also deposit tar on the beaches. By fingerprinting the oil from the pipeline and the oil from natural seeps, it can be determined whether oil lapping up on the beaches is from the pipeline oil spill or a result of natural seeps. 

On a hill above Highway 101, crews continue to work on the underground pipeline responsible for the spill. At the entry point of that operation we were informed that part of the pipeline had just been removed, eventually to be replaced. On the other side of the highway near the cliff that leads to now tainted beaches, response crews haul plastic bags of oily debris in assembly line fashion — from the cliff face to hazardous waste storage bins. Another hazmat crew arrives with a truck bed full of more clean-up supplies.

Responders are committed to restoring the area as best they can before oil tainted this special place, which was enjoyed by beach-goers and campers only days ago.

Future Spill Risks

While I very much appreciate the opportunity to get such a close look at the response operations — of which I only witnessed the tip of the iceberg of the entire situation that has unfolded since May 19 — I hope I never see this again. Oil extraction, transport and processing operations are inherently risky and accidents can and do happen. Of these activities, offshore oil drilling is of particular concern, and specifically new drilling operations in U.S. waters. Luckily the coast of California is largely protected from any new offshore oil drilling operations. Efforts have been underway in the state to close the only existing loophole that would allow slant drilling from existing oil rigs in federal waters into one geographic area of state waters. Other places face more imminent risks — the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans. Despite several failed attempts at exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean, oil companies continue to push for oil extraction in these remote and wildly unforgiving seas. An oil spill in the Arctic would devastate the environment and local communities. It would take far too long to get response infrastructure to the remote area, even if weather was favorable in the often ice-ridden and windy region. An oil spill off the Atlantic coastline would be disastrous as well, and particularly hard-hitting to the fishing and tourism industries. With the long-standing moratorium on new drilling removed, the Atlantic Ocean is now similarly at risk from offshore activity. You can help by signing these petitions to prevent new offshore oil drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans and advocate for healthy oceans.

As for Santa Barbara’s continued recovery efforts, stay tuned.

A special thank you to the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response and the Department of Fish and Wildlife for an inside look into the massive, coordinated effort to respond to this oil spill. In addition to other entities that make up the Unified Command like the Coast Guard and the County of Santa Barbara, they are working around the clock to ensure as close to a full recovery as possible.