The oil company responsible for the recent coastline spill near Santa Barbara and a state agency both confirmed Monday that oil from the accident has traveled more than 100 miles to the south, raising the financial, legal and political stakes of the incident.
The finding that mysterious, large tar balls which have polluted beaches as far away from Santa Barbara as Manhattan Beach, a small Los Angeles County city 130 miles from the accident, puts the lie to spin from Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the spill.
Plains, a multi-billion dollar company based in Houston, previously publicly belittled reports by environmentalists that the oil has widely dispersed as “incorrect concerns.”
The analysis of the direct connection between the oil spilled on May 19 and masses of tar balls as large as four inches in diameter found south of Los Angeles, which was conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and scientists at UC Santa Barbara, is significant for several reasons:
–The far-flung damage caused by the broken Plains pipeline ensures that the financial, and possibly criminal, liability of the company will be far greater than the several million dollars previously estimated. Both Attorney General Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley are conducting investigations into the shoddy maintenance of the badly corroded pipeline that ruptured.
–The spread of oil along the coast and underwater will buttress efforts in Sacramento to more tightly restrict and regulate production and transportation of offshore oil. At least three bills are pending in the Legislature on the issue, which would: crack down on slipshod practices in the large network of pipelines that line the coast; close a legal loophole that allows oil companies to extract oil from certain state-owned offshore sites within the California Coastal Sanctuary; beef up emergency procedures for oil spills while preventing the use of toxic dispersants.
–The new reports by Plains and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife casts a harsh light on the federal agency responsible for inspecting pipelines, strengthening efforts by Democrats in Congress to tighten safety policies and procedures, and to increase funding and staffing for the government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, at a time when Republicans keep cutting regulatory agency budgets across the board.
“This is a game changer in terms of how you evaluate the damage,” said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. “This is perhaps the first time in California we’ve seen a spill in one location and impacts in locations as far as 150 miles away.”
Beach goers and environmental organizations have reported finding unusual deposits of tar on beaches as far away as Orange County and San Diego, and confirmation that the oil from the spill has spread also will increase pressure for more testing to determine the full extent of the damage, both on the coast and underwater, where the impacts are harder to discover and to measure.
“Since the initial report of oil on South Bay beaches on May 27th,” a coalition of high-profile California environmental organizations said in a statement, “oiled beach reports have come in from Oxnard, Leo Carrillo State Beach, El Matador, Zuma Beach, Surfrider, Sunset surf spot, Santa Monica, Venice, the entire South Bay, Long Beach, San Clemente and Laguna Beach.”
For Plains, at least part of the bottom line message from the troubling reports is clear: ka-ching, ka-ching.