California oil spill: Regulators, lawmakers scrutinize company response

The Texas-based oil company has come under fire for failing to immediately notify state and federal authorities about a May 19 pipeline rupture in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
A bird covered in oil flaps its wings at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., May 21. As thousands of gallons of crude oil from a ruptured pipeline spread along the California coast, its operator was unable to contact workers near the break to get information required to alert federal emergency officials, records released Wednesday said.

New details are emerging about last month's oil spill on Refugio beach in California's Santa Barbara County. When firefighters investigating the spill arrived at the scene on May 19, they quickly located a hose-like device spewing crude oil across the sand and into the water, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. But almost an entire afternoon passed before the operator of a nearby pipeline acknowledged that its device was the source of the leaking oil.

The spill has prompted federal regulators and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to investigate Texas-based Plains All American, the company responsible for the pipeline. On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee opened a probe into the spill and requested that the company provide detailed information about the maintenance of the line, including how it addressed deterioration. The panel also asked the company to explain what it was doing in the hours leading up to the leak near Santa Barbara, and how it reported the problem.

Records released by the company showed that once employees confirmed that oil was leaking into the ocean, two workers rode along the pipeline to look for the source of the spill. "It was not readily apparent from their vantage point near the beach that the oil originated" from the company pipeline, the records said.

Environmental groups say the spill points to the dangers of a planned expansion of tar sands oil production in California, the Monitor reported in May.

“It’s shocking that it took the company three hours to shut the pipeline down after it was reported by the public,” Anthony Swift, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, told the Monitor’s Daniel Wood.  

Commercial fishing has now been prohibited near the spill, and nearly 300 dead marine mammals and birds have been found in the area.

In total, 101,000 gallons of oil gushed from the failed pipeline. Some 21,000 gallons of which reached the ocean. The oil is believed to have washed up as far as 100 miles away.

"It was very black. You couldn't see the sand anymore," fire Capt. Craig Vanderzwaag told AP, recalling his arrival at the scene of the leak on May 19. "You could see rolling waves with black oil lapping up on the beach."

The spill has been called the largest coastal oil spill in 25 years. Cleanup costs have reached $92 million.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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