The one-year anniversary of the Refugio Oil Spill has brought with it a raft of renewed interest in this oil spill and the consequences as we now see them.  We’ve done a good deal of media over the last couple of weeks.  Add to that plenty of breaking stories from all quarters (often speaking to pending or future litigation) and the public now has a much better sense of what actually happened in the lead-up to the spill as well as the still-growing legacy of this injury.

What follows is my take on what we know as of May 19, 2016, 365 days post release of oil.  This is the first in a series of posts about what happened and what we know of the impacts from the largest oil spill on this stretch of our California coast since the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill.


  • An estimated 148,000 gallons of oil released, with at least 60,000 gallons accumulating on the beach/nearshore ocean at Refugio State Beach on May 19, 2015.
  • Pipeline operators were unaware oil was spilling from their rupture pipeline when they initially halted flow.  Failing to detect the leak, the controller even restarted the line after the spill occurred.
  • Actual response/clean-up did not begin until Day 2.


Relevant Pre-Spill History

note: This is a very short list, but it represents what I have found to be often under-appreciated facts, essential to properly understanding the Refugio Spill.
Summerland oil piers near Santa Barbara, circa 1901-1903. Image: Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Summerland oil piers near Santa Barbara, circa 1901-1903. Image: Title Insurance and Trust/C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, currently housed at USC Libraries.

Refugio Spill Day 1: May 19, 2015

note: My own recollections and experiences are augmented below by testimony by Plains All American Pipeline, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Coast Guard, the U.S. and California EPAs, and discussions with on-scene responders we encountered in the days and months following the spill.
The oil pipeline rupture at Refugio State Beach may have spilled as much as 105,000 gallons of crude, authorities said. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The oil pipeline rupture at Refugio State Beach may have spilled as much as 105,000 gallons of crude, authorities said. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

  • prior 10:45: Plains All American pipeline segment 901 which that transports crude oil for 18 km (11 mi) between Las Flores Canyon and Gaviota bursts just inland from the 101 Freeway proximate to Refugio State Beach, about 32 km (20 mi) west of downtown Santa Barbara.  The 61 cm-diameter (24”) pipe ruptures due to extensive external corrosion of the metal pipe and begins leaking and commences to release oil for some unknown period of time through paper-thin pipe walls.
  • 10:45: Plains All American’s Midland, TX pipeline command center shuts down oil flow in the pipeline by depowering pumps at the their inland Sisquoc Station for inspection and maintenance.  The company is oblivious to any oil spillage and does not realize oil has been flowing unchecked into the environment at this point.
  • 10:55: Pipeline pumps are restarted (I know how crazy this sounds), pouring pressurized oil out of the pipeline fracture.  Within three minutes of restarting, pressure plunged to 199 psi, triggering a low-pressure alarm that quickly resets when pressure climbed just above 200 psi.  The alarm was set to be tripped at such a low pressure that it never sounded again as oil flowed out the pipe at just above 200 psi trigger level.  An additional leak detection system that also would have sounded alarms had been disabled by an operator who was dealing with another, unrelated problem/maintenance.
  • 11:15: Pipeline pumps along this segment are again turned off, still with no realization by operators any oil has spilled.
  • 11:30: A Plains All American operator remotely shuts down the entire pipeline because of pressure anomalies causing concern in the pipeline command center in Midland, TX.
  • 11:42: An unidentified member of the public at Refugio State Beach calls 911 reporting a pungent smell.  Santa Barbara County Fire Department and California State Parks respond to the 911 call as (again, crazy as it may sound) a preparedness drill with emergency workers and Plains All American employees is about to get underway a mere two miles away.  These first responders (not the company) reach out to the National Spill Response Center to report a potential oil spill based on the heavy crude oil smell in the air.  The National Spill Response Center is an informational clearinghouse for releases of hazardous substances nationwide.
  • 12:20: Firefighters finally discover oil flowing across the beach and into the ocean.

    Derek Fisher holds onto the shirt of Steven Botello as he tries to reach out to help and oil soaked bird that washed ashore on Tuesday at Refugio Beach Campground. A large oil spill coated the beach and surrounding coastline. image: Lara Cooper/Noozhawk.

    This classic image of Derek Fisher holding onto the shirt of Steven Botello on May 19, 2015 as he reaches out to an oil soaked bird on Refugio State Beach.  Image: Lara Cooper/Noozhawk.

  • 12:30: Plains All American dispatch in Midland, TX dispatches a worker to do a visual inspection of the pipeline, still unaware an oil spill is in progress.
  • 12:39: The Coast Guard is notified.
  • 12:47: The Coast Guard calls the National Spill Response Center to confirm and oil spill has happened.
  • 13:30: A Plains All American employee finally confirms an oil spill has indeed happened.  At just about same time, Santa Barbara firefighters manage to partially staunch the flow of oil onto the beach by damming a storm drain with dirt and rocks.  Oil is still flowing onto the beach, but at a much reduced rate from here on out.
  • 13:56: The National Spill Response Center notifies the Federal Environmental Protection Agency a spill has occurred.
  • 14:56: Plains All American notifies National Spill Response Center a spill has occurred, estimating at least 21,000 gallons has leaked.  This first pass estimate is an order of magnitude off.  Current estimates put the volume about seven times this amount.
  • 15:00: California State University Channel Islands is notified of an oil spill.  Our ESRM Program immediately begins mobilizing field crews to sample sandy beaches, an annual task routinely scheduled to begin June 1 of each year.  This was no small feat as the semester had concluded the week before and most of our faculty and students were en route to family vacations, etc.

    Cheri Carlson of KEYT3 News May 19, 2015

    Kelsey Gerckens of KEYT3 News interviewing Dr. Anderson on May 19, 2015.

  • 16:00: Refugio State Beach is closed.  It will remain closed until July 17.
  • sometime before sunset: Clean Seas oil spill response vessel arrives on scene, but determines it can do little before sunset and will not be able to mobilize its required fleet of voluntary fishing vessels to help with surface booming to contain floating oil until the morning.  Booming to this point focuses on deploying protection around sensitive terrestrial landscapes (especially creek mouths) on local beaches in the immediate vicinity (Gaviota to El Capitan) of the spill to minimize any potential impacted were oil to wash ashore.
  • 16:30: Traffic slowdowns have become extensive along the 101 Freeway adjacent to Refugio Beach as onlookers attempt to view what is happening and California Highway Patrol attempts to block drivers from pulling over along the roadside for better looks.  At least two private citizens operate drones near the site (an action still totally legal and permitted at this point).  My neighbors who happened to be driving by Refugio at this time were unaware of the spill but reported a very pungent smell that was not alleviated with closed windows nor recirculated air.  They also reported headaches.  Some reporters responding to the scene at Refugio report nausea and dizzy spells attributable to the vapors associated with the strong odors from spilled crude oil.
  • 19:00: Dr. Anderson gives his first two media interviews to TV Stations.  It becomes clear from both the inundation and diversity of requests for expert, technical commentary and from the general lack of detailed understanding of our local oil spill history engendered in those requests that the media (and public as well) could use a primer on oil spills and oil spill history.  Hence, we resolve to created this blog.
  • evening of May 19: News media report a spill has happened and that Refugio State Beach is closed, but with almost no facts they report mostly speculation and eyewitness accounts from beachgoers.


Refugio Spill Day 2: May 20, 2015

Chase, bird monitor, Paul El Capitan State Beach 05-20-15

ESRM Sandy Beach Team members Chase Tillman and Paul Spaur exchange observations with a bird monitor at El Capitan State Beach on the morning of May 20, 2015.

  • 5:00: Incident Command formally activates.  Airspace over the spill is closed and ocean vessel traffic is restricted.
  • 6:30: CSUCI’s ESRM Rapid Beach Assessment Team is onsite at El Capitan State Beach, conducting rapid beach health assessments.  No oil has yet arrived to El Capitan sands, Clean Seas in booming the ocean surface just offshore of El Capitan Beach.
  • 9:30: State Park Lifeguards begin asking campers at El Capitan to voluntarily remain on the bluffs and not come down to beach.
  • 11:00: State Park Lifeguards begin to close El Capitan State Beach, informing campers that they must evacuate state property immediately.  We conclude our sampling of El Capitan State Beach just as Lifeguards formally close the beach to public access.
  • 12:00: Our ESRM team is refused access to Refugio State Beach and our first petition to map spill extent with our aerial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) goes unanswered, even after being asked to help map the site by one federal agency (but that is a story for another time).
  • 13:00: ESRM samples Gaviota State Beach.  We begin to be inundated with media requests for reports of impacts and first hand observer accounts of the spill.
  • prior to 17:00: the first oil begins arriving on El Capitan State Beach.
NBC4's Gordon Tokumatsu interviewing Dr. Sean Anderson at El Capitan State Beach on May 20, 2015.

NBC4’s Gordon Tokumatsu interviewing Dr. Sean Anderson at El Capitan State Beach on May 20, 2015.

Stay tuned for the next post with the continuation of the Refugio Timeline…

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