May 19, 2015 was a dark day at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve in Santa Barbara. That morning, a rusty underground pipeline a dozen miles up the coast began spewing 120,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. Much of it drifted ashore, where beaches, where it coated birds, marine mammals, shorelines, and subtidal habitats in tarry black sludge. At Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve, the timing of the spill couldn’t be worse: it coincided with nesting season for the reserve’s endangered Western snowy plovers.
Now, after years of negotiations with the pipeline’s owner, California officials have reached a comprehensive civil settlement resolving natural resource damages, penalties, and response costs associated with the Refugio Oil Spill. The U.S. Department of Justice and the State of California filed a consent decree in federal court that requires Plains All American Pipeline to pay more than $60 million for natural resource damages and penalties and to reimburse the governmental entities for costs incurred as result of the release. The spill also forced beaches such as those at the NRS’s Coal Oil Point Reserve to close to the public, and caused interruptions to research and teaching happening on the reserve.
“The UC Natural Reserve System has supported the study of California’s coastal ecosystems for over 50 years, tracking the health of our coastline and championing scientific advances. This oil spill directly affected one of the state’s most important coastal research sites, Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve. The University looks forward to collaborating with the other federal and state agencies and the public to begin healing the damage done to the ecology of this diverse and unique marine environment,” said Peggy Fiedler, executive director of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.
The spill also heavily oiled nearby shorelines such as Refugio and El Capitan state beaches. Currents and winds carried the oil as far south as Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.
“Because of this settlement Plains will pay for many natural habitat restoration projects,” said Thomas Cullen, administrator of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “This was a monumental team effort to reach an agreement that could not be accomplished without the help of our federal, state and local partners. The public should know that when an oil spill happens in California, we will hold those responsible accountable, and require a thorough and rapid cleanup and restoration.”
The federal and state agencies responsible for protecting natural resources affected by the spill estimate that nearly 1,500 acres of sandy beach and rocky intertidal shoreline along with 2,100 acres of ocean floor and fish habitats were impacted. An estimated 559 birds, 156 pinnipeds (primarily sea lions) and 76 dolphins were killed. Oiled beaches caused the loss of more than 140,000 recreational user-days.
The settlement includes $22.3 million for natural resource damages. These funds will be dedicated to restoration projects to compensate the public for impacts to wildlife, habitat and recreational use. A draft restoration plan proposing specific projects will be released for public comment after the consent decree is finalized.
“The California Department of Parks and Recreation is pleased that along with natural habitat restoration, this settlement will provide the necessary funding to complete projects that enhance coastal recreation opportunities specifically at state park units on the Gaviota Coast that sustained severe impacts from the Refugio Oil Spill.” Said Nat Cox, Senior Environmental Scientist for the Channel Coast District of State Parks.
“Years of comprehensive research and analysis led to this victory for California’s coastline,” said State Controller and State Lands Commission Chair Betty T. Yee. “This settlement reflects California’s dedication to protecting the environment by restoring natural resources and helping deter mismanagement of hazardous-liquid pipelines.”
The settlement also requires Plains to pay $24 million in penalties ($14.5 million for Pipeline Safety Law violations, and nearly $10.5 million for violations under the State Porter-Cologne Act, the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act and federal water pollution laws). Of this amount, $2.5 million will go to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and approximately $1.1 million to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The monies will be used to protect state waters and implement environmental enhancement projects in California.
Plains must also improve its pipeline safety operations and oil spill response to address problems leading up to and immediately following the spill. These improvements are designed to help safeguard Californians and California’s treasured natural resources.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Wolff, Chair of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said, “This settlement resolves the issues surrounding damages to the Gaviota coastline and its wildlife, however, because of these damages, we must ensure spill prevention is more effective and this settlement also addresses that aspect.” Dr. Wolff added, “I thank all who worked so hard to help us achieve this settlement. We take spills like this very seriously and will continue to aggressively pursue enforcement against those responsible.”