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Santa Barabara oil mess

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From the June 2015 Birding Community E-bulletin:


It's not pretty, and it's a bit like déjà vu, harkening back to 1969.

The 1969 spill at Santa Barbara was so dramatic that it helped to ignite an environmental movement and launch a host of federal and state laws to protect the environment. Although last month's spill is far smaller than the 1969 catastrophe, it still prompted California's governor to declare a state of emergency in the county.

A broken 24-inch diameter onshore pipeline ruptured, and it spewed oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours before it could be shut off. The pipeline transports crude oil for 10.6 miles from Exxon Mobil's breakout storage tanks in Las Flores Canyon to a pump station in Gaviota. Plains All American, the company responsible for this pipeline, is among the worst violators listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration. The federal agency said that the company surpassed all but four of more than 1,700 operators in the area of safety and maintenance infractions.

The 105,000-gallon spill is yet another "wake-up call" for the hazards associated with oil development and the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

The California region's ocean waters host crucial forests of kelp. The seaweed grows to lengths of 130 feet, and it helps support more than 800 species, including many small fish and invertebrates. If these small creatures ingest the oil they will either die directly or get eaten by larger animals, thus spreading toxic material up the food chain.

Larger marine mammals (e.g., sea lions and sea otters) also forage for food in the underwater vegetation. When kelp breaks loose and washes up on shore, arthropods and birds eat it; shorebirds, gulls, terns, and cormorants forage at or near the shoreline. About 19,000 gray whales migrate through the channel at this time of season, sometimes as close as 100 feet from shore. And intertidal areas support sea anemones, soft corals, shrimp, muscles, crabs, and small fish.

Bird species face some of the greatest risks. Foraging on the beach often means running into sticky oil that washes up on shore. Brown Pelicans-which spent almost 50 years on the Federal list of Endangered and Threatened species before their removal in 2009 - dive into the water to pursue fish, which means they can potentially end up plunging into an oil slick.

It may be too early to tell exactly what will happen at Santa Barbara. Ben Halpern, a marine conservation researcher at UC Santa Barbara, says the most visible short term effect will be bird deaths from eating oil-related chemicals. "It's clearly a disaster, but it will be relatively contained," he says. "There will be major impact on the local scale, but not the regional one."

At the same time, oil spill protocols have triggered an active response from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Crews have deployed for clean-up, wildlife rescue, and damage assessment. International Bird Rescue and a number of local organizations have also been helping with clean-up and wildlife assistance. The Santa Barbara Audubon Society has been monitoring the beaches and watching for dead and injured birds.

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