Spill — disaster, no big deal or wake-up call?

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on June 12, 2015: http://santamariatimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/commentary/looking-forward/spill-disaster-no-big-deal-or-wake-up-call/article_8ed7a539-2d22-5a94-9831-db766407b2c7.html

Many observers, including me, say the Refugio oil spill is a local environmental and financial disaster. On the extreme other hand, one columnist wrote in the Times that the biggest cost of the incident would be the loss of $25,000 worth of crude oil.

As of June 3, more than 40 miles of coast had been fouled with oil, and 138 square miles closed to fishing. Two popular state beaches had closed, and 173 dead animals collected — 115 birds, 46 sea lions and 12 dolphins. Another 100 animals have been affected. This clearly is a local environmental disaster.

With nearly 1,400 workers, 18 boats and two helicopters on the scene as of May 29 according to the Times, the cleanup costs alone must be in the millions. Then there is lost tourism revenue and other costs. Although many of these loses may ultimately be paid by the pipeline company, the short-term economic impacts are huge.

People can debate whether the Refugio spill is a disaster or an incident, but I want to suggest a couple of other scenarios that would be disasters in anyone’s lexicon — an oil train crash on the Union Pacific mainline in one of our cities or on the coast, and a pipeline spill contaminating our water supplies.

The Union Pacific mainline runs directly through Carpinteria, Montecito, Santa Barbara, Goleta and Guadalupe and closely hugs the shoreline through the Gaviota Coast and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Currently three or more oil trains a week travel south from the San Ardo oil field through Santa Barbara County, each carrying up to 3 million gallons of crude oil. At least 55 creeks and unique coastal canyon ecosystems in the county are crossed by the tracks.

Imagine the disaster that would unfold if one of these trains derailed on one of the trestles. Just four rail cars carry the amount of crude oil that spilled at Refugio. Local jurisdictions have no control over these existing oil trains.

Meanwhile, Phillips 66 proposes to build a rail terminal at its Santa Maria Refinery to accommodate mile-long trains with 80 tank cars full of crude oil. According to the environmental impact report for this project, we can expect up to five trains per week full of the highly volatile Canadian tar sands crude oil to arrive here. The railroad may route these trains either through the Bay Area and San Luis Obispo, or through Southern California and Santa Barbara County.

We should all urge the SLO County Planning Commission to deny the rail terminal so we will not see a huge increase in oil train traffic in Santa Barbara County and elsewhere.

Then, think about the water we drink and water our crops with in the Santa Maria Valley. Our aquifer is crisscrossed by oil pipelines, penetrated by active and abandoned oil wells, and overlain by two refineries.

We are told all the oil pipelines in Santa Barbara County — other than the one at Refugio — have valves that shut off the flow of oil upon any change in pressure that might indicate a leak.

What happened, then, on the evening of June 2 near Santa Maria, when a Phillips 66 pipeline spilled oil on California Boulevard? A passerby discovered the spill and alerted officials. An undetected pipeline leak could put the water we drink and use on crops at risk.

We need systematic tests of our water supply to detect not only pesticide residues, which are done routinely, but also possible contamination from leaks and spills related to oil production and oil transportation.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.