Once again, oil spill causes citizens to do government’s job


The oil spill story in and around Santa Barbara just keeps getting worse. Indeed, this weekend officials had to close a number of beaches as far south as Orange County, south of Los Angeles, because of a wave of sticky, gooey tar balls, ranging from baseball-sized to football-sized, that keep coming ashore. Officials haven’t yet confirmed that the tar balls are the result of the pipeline rupture and the 105,000 gallons of crude oil that spilled shortly before Memorial Day, but the timing and the location of the tar balls is certainly suspicious. Tar balls are also certainly a familiar problem for us here on the Gulf Coast, where oil residue — even giant “tar mats” — continue to turn up on our white sandy beaches, more than five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.

As noted in an earlier post, there are far too many similarities between the BP oil spill that occurred in 2010 and the thankfully smaller situation in the environmentally sensitive waters off Santa Barbara. In both cases, the size and the scope of the spill proved to be larger than officials initially told the general public. More strikingly, despite past reasons for concern, at both Deepwater Horizon rig explosions and at the Plains All-American pipeline break, officials were stunningly slow to react — unnecessary delays which allowed the situation to spin out of hand.

In Santa Barbara, which had been the site of a devastating and long-remembered oil spill in 1969, news began to spread among citizens that oil from the pipeline rupture was beginning to foul the Pacific beaches, and that yet — remarkably — public responders were nowhere to be found. A local newspaper describes what happened next:

The images are both heartwarming and heartbreaking: a dozen men and women, mostly strangers, clad in T-shirts and shorts, shoveling load after load of heavy, noxious oil off a spoiled beach shimmering in the morning sun.

Some formed a Sisyphean bucket brigade to scoop hundreds of gallons of crude from the sand, only to watch more wash up with the next waves. Others ran into the surf to cradle the blackened bodies of dying pelicans in their arms. Where were the professionals? Eighteen hours after a broken pipe had sent a river of oil into the ocean, why had no “official” arrived to help save Lorraine’s Beach?

At the time, the estimate was that 21,000 gallons had escaped, but according to area artist and citizen responder Ethan Turpin, that seemed incredibly low: “I was there for about an hour, and we filled 50 five-gallon buckets. Sadly, I must say, there is no way we removed one percent of that spill.” As it turned out, the spill was over 100,000 gallons.

The responders spontaneously began arriving all along the Gaviota Coast as early as 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, alerted to the pipeline rupture by texts and news stories the day before. It was the images of their backbreaking work that were beamed around the world while a bureaucratically hamstrung task force of state and federal agencies slowly rolled out their cleanup effort.

Early in the afternoon, exhausted, the volunteers noticed a huddle of men standing around a truck and asked for a hand hauling their 50-pound buckets of oil. The men just stared and called back: “We’re Caltrans.” The citizen responders could only laugh and keep shoveling. As more would-be volunteers arrived and parked above the beach, CHP officers threatened them with tickets if they didn’t leave.

In fairness, California officials have only had, what, 46 years to get ready for this after the last big spill. What is unfortunate is that this citizen bucket brigade — as opposed to professional first-responders — did not have the proper protective gear, and as we learned all too well hear on the Gulf Coast, they are risking their good health by exposing themselves to crude oil.

This week, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, a group that I’ve represented in the past, sent an open letter to citizens in Santa Barbara urging them to make their own health the No. 1 priority:

“We do not want to see your citizens’, workers’, and volunteers’ health harmed in the way we have seen it damaged along our Gulf Coast after the 2010 BP oil disaster,” the letter says. 

But the warning may be too late to help some like Osiris Castañeda, a father, ocean lover and filmmaking professor who cleaned up a stretch of Santa Barbara County beach with other volunteers on May 20, the day after a Plains Pipeline spilled an estimated 101,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s another important point: The lack of a speedy response should be another symbol of the pure folly of the Obama administration’s plans to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Just like what happened in the Gulf five years ago, officials are simply not ready for the risks.

Read more from the Los Angeles Times about tar balls washing up on beaches in Southern California: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-cleanup-efforts-underway-after-clumps-of-tar-washed-ashore-in-the-south-bay-20150528-story.html

Check out the stories of citizen first-responders from the Santa Barbara Independent: http://www.independent.com/news/2015/may/28/citizen-responders-rushed-save-beaches/

Read about LEAN’s open letter about the hazards of volunteer oil clean-ups: http://www.desmogblog.com/2015/05/31/louisiana-environmental-group-warns-santa-barbara-oil-spill-cleanup-workers-protect-their-health

Read more about the many pollution risks from America’s addiction to oil in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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