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Broken Pipeline Spills Oil Into Coastal Water

Environment: Contamination of seabirds is reported in leak of up to 40,000 gallons off Santa Barbara County.

September 30, 1997|SCOTT STEEPLETON and FRANK CLIFFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

POINT ARGUELLO, Calif. — A ruptured underwater pipeline has released 20,000 to 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean a few miles off the northern Santa Barbara County coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base, state Fish and Game officials said Monday.

The break was reported early Monday morning and, by late in the day, emergency response team members had begun to find seabirds contaminated by the slow-moving patches of oil spread over a four-square-mile area.

Pushed in different directions by crosscurrents, most of the oil was reported to be about half a mile from shore. But some small "tar balls" washed ashore at Vandenberg Air Force Base about 6 p.m., the Coast Guard said.

Even if the main body of the spill does not make it to shore, there are potential hazards for a variety of wildlife, particularly seabirds and otters, experts said.

U.S. Coast Guard pilots described the spill of crude oil as a series of black ribbons in the ocean from 100 to 500 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

By late Monday there was only the one report that evidence of the spill was appearing on a beach north of the air base.

"You can tell by the foam. The foam is not white; it is brown," said Andy Rosenberg of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services.

The leak resulted from a break in a pipeline between a drilling platform three miles offshore and a terminal on Point Arguello, according to the California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response.

Phil Sorbet, district manager of the firm that owns the facility, Houston-based Torch Operating Co., said that monitoring equipment first detected a problem in the 20-inch pipeline late Sunday and that he did not know whether the leak had been stopped as of late Monday. The break occurred 247 feet below the ocean surface, he said.

This is the first time the 12-year-old pipeline, built by Unocal, has been a problem, a spokesman for the U.S. Minerals Management Service said.

About a dozen vessels were using booms and skimmers, hoping to contain the oil slick and clean it up before it reached shore.

John Romero, a public affairs officer with the minerals management agency, said it was uncertain when the slick might reach shore, but estimates ranged from midnight Monday to late today.

Four to six oiled seabirds had been found so far, he said.

The accident is minor compared to the state's largest offshore release, the 4-million-gallon torrent in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969 that inundated beaches and was largely responsible for sparking the modern environmental movement.

But the latest spill occurred at a time and place that could have serious impacts on wildlife, one expert said, because the area between Point Arguello and Point Concepcion is a popular stopover for migratory birds heading south for the winter.

Even if most of the oil remains at sea, it could spell trouble for native seabirds and the southern sea otter, an endangered species that loses its insulation against cool Pacific waters if oil gets in its fur.

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