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California Oil Spill: "It Stunk Like Fucking Hell"

Surf is not up off the Southern California coast, where a Texas pipeline company has just lost 105,000 gallons (and counting) of crude oil.

by Mike Rogge
May 22 2015, 6:50pm

Photo by Flickr user Tommy Chheng

A pipeline operated by Plains All American Pipeline burst near Santa Barbara, California on Tuesday, leaking roughly 105,000 gallons of crude oil into the coastal environment. The company immediately issued a statement claiming responsibility, stating, "Initial reports indicate the released oil reached a culvert leading to the Pacific Ocean." According to a Los Angeles Times report, Plains All American Pipeline has accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Wednesday for Santa Barbara County. As Memorial Day Weekend approaches, popular beach and surf destinations were closed Friday, including Refugio and El Capitan state beaches where much of the oil has settled into a 9-mile slick, slowly drifting offshore. Tourists in town to surf have been evacuated from the beachside campgrounds.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the state beaches, says the beaches will likely be open for day use during the weekend. All camping reservations at the beaches have been suspended until May 28.

"It's a horrible thing. There's been reports of whales and sea lions swimming through the slick," says Jeremy Woodul, 40, who is the floor manager at Santa Barbara surf shop The Beach House. The spill is located 40-minutes north of the shop. Woodul describes the area of the spill as a large bay, heavily dependent on southern and western swells for surf. He also says that locals are staying away from the beaches while the cleanup effort is underway.

"Locals are more concerned, from everyone I've talked to, about the environment," Woodul says.

The spill will no doubt affect the local economy and make several surf breaks temporarily unrideable, including Refugio and El Capitan. Refugio is a popular destination for longboarders and beginner surfers, specifically during large winter swells, but is typically ridable during all tide times. El Capitan, when a west swell is hitting, provides a powerful big right point break. It is known in the Santa Barbara community as a sometimes legendary spot for serious barrels.

Professional skier and Santa Cruz native Cody Townsend grew up surfing the California coast. He is currently in the area on business.

"Driving on the [Highway] 1 and there was a sewage smell for about 10 miles straight," he told VICE Sports. "Boats with booms up and down the coast, helicopters flying around, and clean up crews eating at In N Out [Burger]...it stunk like fucking hell."

The coastal waters off Santa Barbara are noted for their high biodiversity. The northern half of Channel Islands National Park, 16 miles off shore at its closest point, potentially sits in the path of the drifting oil slick. And while the area has been the focus of conservation efforts over the years, energy development has also occurred both on- and offshore.

In August 2014, Santa Barbara, facing heavy efforts from lobbying groups, failed to pass a bill that would have banned offshore drilling in the area. Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, "We should not be drilling for oil in our equivalent of the Amazon rain forest." The bill needed 41 votes to pass, but only received 28.

Added Woodul: "We can eventually surf there. As far as the animals and environment go, this is long lasting. It takes years for the environment to recover from this."