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Texas Pipeline Company Admits Santa Barbara Oil Spill Was 40 Percent Larger Than Estimated

The pipeline, owned by Plains All American Pipeline, burst in May and led to hundreds of bird and mammal deaths, in what was the worst spill in 25 years
Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A May pipeline break near Santa Barbara, California, leaked far more oil into the Pacific Ocean than was previously disclosed by the pipe operator, Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline, according to the Associated Press.

The company previously estimated 101,000 gallons of crude oil, or 2,400 barrels, were spilled at Refugio State Beach. But it now admits the leak could have been 1,000 barrels higher, for a total of 143,000 spilled gallons. That's roughly a 40 percent increase - and the company stressed that the amount could change as more data is made available.


"I wouldn't be surprised if even that [new] number is a lowball and we'll never find out the actual impact," Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper told VICE News.

Regardless of the total gallons spilled, she added, the damaged would be long lasting: "The oil spreads out in waves, it sinks and goes into sediments and will be stirred up again when a storm hits."

Representatives from Plains All American Pipeline did not respond to VICE News requests for comment.

Related: California Pipeline Bursts, Spills 105,000 Gallons of Oil

The cost of clean up thus far is estimated to be $62 million. Nearly 200 dead birds and over 100 mammals were found dead in the vicinity of the spill. The Santa Barbara Channel is home to a delicate ecosystem anchored by giant kelp forests, whose algae is a major food source for tiny marine life. Last month, tar balls suspected of originating from the spill washed up in Long Beach, 120 miles south of Santa Barbara.

"It was horrible news to know that so much more oil had come from the spill," Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolfe told VICE News. "From a visual standpoint, the clean up activities have made the beaches look much better. But I can almost assure you that we have not uncovered all that was spilled. There is more oil out there and the expectation is that, when a large storm hits, the oil will come back to shore, and we will ensure the oil company is held responsible for further damage."


Prosecutors, including the Santa Barbara District Attorney, are considering criminal charges against Plains.

While no agency has declared the official cause of the pipe break, federal regulators said that 45 percent of the metal around the ruptured area was corroded at the time of the leak. Other parts of the pipeline were even more degraded, with 54 to 74 percent of the inner metal lining completely corroded in some areas.

Related: Prosecutors Consider Criminal Charges in Santa Barbara Pipeline Break

The spill is the worst in California in 25 years, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

A year before the break, Plains conducted its own assessment of the pipeline and assured regulators that its operations were "state of the art" and that a spill was "extremely unlikely."

The Associated Press reported that since 2006, Plains was responsible for 223 accidents that spilled 864,300 gallons of crude, for which the company has paid $32 million in damages.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to the company's profit margins: The company took in $878 million in profits on $43 billion in revenue in 2014, according to the LA Times.

Follow Aaron Cantú on Twitter: @aaronmiguel_