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Report On Massive Santa Barbara County Oil Spill Out On Accident's One Year Anniversary

Refugio State Beach looks back to normal one year after the major 2015 oil spill, but researchers say we still don't know the full impacts offshore

Thursday marked the one year anniversary of Santa Barbara County’s massive Refugio State Beach oil pipeline accident.

A federal agency used the occasion to release its final report on the causes of the spill, a 500 page document which blames the pipeline company for neglecting monitoring and maintenance of the pipe, as well as for a number of mistakes in management of the accident. Meanwhile, local environmental and political leaders traveled back to the beach to talk about where we stand with the disaster a year later.

Thursday was an overcast day at Refugio State Beach. There’s a few surfers on the water, and two people walking along the shoreline, but it’s otherwise quiet. It’s quite a contrast to what was happening a year ago today. It was May 19th, 2015 when a nearby oil pipeline ruptured, spilling more than 140,000 gallons of oil. It triggered a months long cleanup effort, which cost more than $100 million dollars. Today, though, the beach looks pristine, and the popular campground is busy.

But, while the coastline looks like it’s recovered, environmentalists say we really don’t know what’s happening offshore. Kira Redmond, the Executive Director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, says continued testing, and research will not only help us learn more the spill’s impacts, but also come up with a price tag for Plains All American Pipeline for the environmental damage.  Hundreds of birds, and mammals were killed or injured by the spill.

On the anniversary of the massive Santa Barbara County oil spill, a federal agency released its final report on its investigation of the causes of the accident. The more than 500 page report by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says factors include corrosion of the pipeline, failure to detect, and fix the problem, and a lack of timely detection.

The report says the spill was larger than it should have been because the pipeline didn’t have an adequate leak related warning system. Investigators say as a result, the spill continued longer than it should have, and that at one point, a pipeline controller actually restarted the pipeline after the ruptured . And, the report says control room staff lacked formalized training on leak detection, and emergency shutdowns. The pipeline, Line 901, along with a sister pipeline remain shut down, cutting off the follow of oil from a half dozen offshore oil platforms.

Environmentalists say there need to be tougher inspections, and regulations before the oil flows again. Linda Krop, the  Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, says because the pipelines don't cross state lines, they don't need to be under federal jurisdiction.  She says they are pushing for the state and Santa Barbara County to regulate the pipes when the reopen, which will mean closer safety scrutiny.

Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams of Santa Barbara is also pushing for local regulation of the pipelines.  He says under the current system, pipeline companies conduct safety inspections unless there is a problem, and that the accident shows self-regulating doesn't work.  Williams says under state regulation, a state fire marshal would conduct inspections, putting a second set of eyes on the pipelines besides the operators.

Refugio Beach lost its entire summer season to the spill last year.  But, with the sand clean, and no documented oil from the spill on the beach for more than six months, it's geared up for a big year, and its 60 plus campsites are almost totally booked from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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