CBSN

Santa Barbara oil spill stretches 9 miles in two slicks

An oil slick is seen along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

GOLETA, Calif. - Slicks of oil that spilled into California coastal waters from an onshore pipeline spanned a total of 9 miles Wednesday, and a company official said the line was operating at full capacity when it broke, suggesting much more oil escaped than initially estimated.

The oil that spilled Tuesday off southern Santa Barbara County formed two slicks, said Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams, one of two federal response coordinators.

Before a morning flyover, the oil was estimated to span 4 miles of ocean.

The spill from a Plains All American Pipeline LP pipe was initially estimated at 21,000 gallons, but officials were not relying on that.

Company official Darren Palmer said Wednesday it remained unknown how much oil actually spilled.

But he said the pipeline was running at a rate of 2,000 barrels an hour - equivalent to 84,000 gallons.

The pipe was built in 1991 and underwent integrity testing a few weeks ago, he said.

Palmer said the company took responsibility for the spill and would pay for the cleanup.

An oil slick is seen along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, United States, May 19, 2015.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Workers from an environmental cleanup company strapped on boots and gloves and picked up shovels and rakes Wednesday to tackle the gobs of goo stuck to sand and rocks along Refugio State Beach.

The rupture happened on the same stretch of coastline as a 1969 spill that was the largest ever in U.S. waters at the time and is credited with giving rise to the American environmental movement.

Members of the International Bird Rescue organization also were on hand Wednesday to clean any birds that become covered with oil, though none were immediately spotted in the calm seas that produced small waves.

Fan Yang, 26, of Indianapolis, stood on a bluff overlooking the beach, where the stench of petroleum was heavy.

"It smells like what they use to pave the roads," said Yang, who was hoping to find cleaner beaches in Santa Barbara. "I'm sad for the birds - if they lose their habitat."

The broken 24-inch pipeline spewed oil down a storm drain and into the Pacific Ocean for several hours Tuesday before it was shut off.

Authorities responding to reports of a foul smell near Refugio State Beach around noon found a half-mile slick in the ocean, county fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said.

Plains All American Pipeline said in a statement it was making every effort to limit the environmental impact.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed fishing and shellfish harvesting for a mile east and west of the beach.

The area is home to offshore oil rigs, and small amounts of tar from natural seepage regularly show up on beaches. In 1969, several hundred thousand gallons spilled from a blowout on an oil platform and thousands of seabirds and many marine mammals were killed.

The oil industry brings risks, said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Santa Barbara learned that lesson over 40 years ago when offshore drilling led to disaster," he said in a statement.

The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center said having the spill occur in a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch. The group was concerned about whales that migrate through the area.

"Oil spills are part of the ugly cost of fossil fuel development, made even worse by aging domestic infrastructure," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

It was unclear how long the cleanup would take and whether Refugio beach and other areas would be reopened in time for Memorial Day weekend.