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Santa Barbara Oil Spill Adds To Pipeline Operator's Dismal Safety Record


Near Santa Barbara, Calif., oil from a spilled pipeline now stretches across nine miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. The leak itself was stopped last Tuesday. Today, federal investigators are on the scene trying to pinpoint what caused it and why the line didn't automatically shut off. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the latest.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Aerial assessments of the massive spill continue today as more than 300 state and federal responders are cleaning up the oil-coated beaches. Out in the ocean, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams says several booms are deployed in hopes of containing the oil's spread.

CAPTAIN JENNIFER WILLIAMS: More than 7,700 gallons of oily water mixture has been removed as cleanup crews continue to work 24 hours a day.

SIEGLER: As the cleanup continues, the safety record of the company that owns the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline, has come under scrutiny. One of the company's pipelines ruptured this this time last year, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the streets near Los Angeles. An analysis by the LA Times also found that since 2006, Plains had infractions, such as equipment failures, at a rate of three times the national average. The Texas-based firm's CEO, Greg Armstrong, flew to Santa Barbara to apologize and promised to pay for the full cleanup.


GREG ARMSTRONG: We apologize for the damage that is done to the wildlife and to the environment.

SIEGLER: California wildlife officials say an untold number of fish and lobsters are dead. So far, at least five oily pelicans have been rescued. Biologists often refer to this stretch of the California coast as the North Galapagos. It's home to a number of rare, endangered fish, and the oil sheen is also adjacent to an important migratory corridor for whales. Linda Krop is chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center.

LINDA KROP: You never really know how many animals die from an oil spill. And the seabirds are a great example of that because they will consume oil through their food, and then they will fly away and die somewhere else.

SIEGLER: Krop's group was first founded after a much larger oil spill near here in 1969. Santa Barbara is famous for its environmental activism, but oil drilling and production has also been an important part of the economy in the rural parts of this county for decades.

Near where the pipeline ruptured, U.S. Highway 101 snakes along the scenic Pacific Coast, and offshore drill rigs are typically seen on the horizon here. The leaked pipe was transporting oil from offshore facilities to refineries in nearby Bakersfield. The spill is attracting a lot of onlookers and anger from locals like Manteo Soto, who says he spent much of his childhood coming here to the Refugio State Beach.

MANTEO SOTO: It's just sad, you know, to see, like, a place that helped start the movement have this happen to it again. It's just - you know, it's one of those things, like, when will people learn, you know? This isn't the way we're supposed to do it.

SIEGLER: Soto drove out here hoping to volunteer with cleanup but was turned away. Emergency officials are asking the public to stay clear to give professional responders room. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Goleta, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.