A Struggle to Check the Seafloor Around California's Oil Spill - Pacific Standard
Any oil that would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean is out of sight—but officials shouldn't put it out of mind.

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA — During a recent boat ride to Refugio State Beach—the site of a 105,000-gallon oil spill last week—Ben Pitterle and I saw seals, sea lions, a gray whale, and dolphins that came so close, it seemed if you jumped, you might land on top of them. It was a lovely three hours, and testimony to the abundance and diversity of sea life in the Santa Barbara Channel. But Pitterle, a program director with the environmental advocacy group Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, wasn't out to spot the whales. He was driving Channelkeeper's little yacht out, in order to drop the group's underwater camera down to the seafloor at Refugio, to see whether oil has gathered there.

Typically, after an oil spill, seafloor assessment and clean-up isn't part of the plan. Maybe it should be, some scientists now argue, particularly in Santa Barbara. Yet non-profits' and universities' requests to survey the ocean floor around Refugio have so far been rebuffed, revealing a confused bureaucracy around the official clean-up effort.

MORE STORIES ON THE SANTA BARBARA OIL SPILL FROM PACIFIC STANDARD

• Reporting From the Edge of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A collection of on-the-ground pictures and observations from Pacific Standard's staff.

• What Can the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill Teach Us About Animal Life? History—and science—have a lot to teach us here in Santa Barbara, California.

• How Santa Barbara's Oil Spill Could Affect Tourism: For Santa Barbara tourism, the recent oil spill could present a crude reality.

"Knowing earlier if there was subsurface oil, we could have the chance to mobilize the kind of clean-up technology we wouldn't use normally," says Sean Anderson, an environmental researcher at California State University-Channel Islands who also studied the Deepwater Horizon spill. "I think it should be a part of oil spill assessment." It's difficult to lift oil up from the bottom of the ocean, Anderson acknowledges, but clean-up crews could leave containment booms around the surface of the water above a pocket of seafloor oil, to gather the stuff in case it gets stirred up. If there is oil in the bottom of the Pacific that officials are unaware of, it may wash up later, requiring clean-up crews—and all their equipment—to return once again. Resurfaced oil may even make people think there's a second spill, requiring costly testing of the oil, to check its source.

"Knowing earlier if there was subsurface oil, we could have the chance to mobilize the kind of clean-up technology we wouldn't use normally. I think it should be a part of oil spill assessment."

Knowing whether oil is on the seafloor is also important to tallying the damage the spill inflicted on Santa Barbara's sea life. Depending on how much oil has sunk, the damages could be anything from the smothering of seafloor organisms to a more subtle altering of animals' and plants' behavior and reproduction. "Whatever's coming into contact with it is going to have some problems," Anderson says.

ps_break1.jpg

While nobody knows for sure whether there's oil on Refugio's seafloor, there's reason to believe there is. The day after the spill, University of California-Santa Barbara biochemist David Valentine noticed that oil had stuck to bits of rock and seagrass and was "hanging just below the surface" of the water, indicating it might get mixed down and deposited on the seafloor.

"The kind of oil we have in Santa Barbara is heavy, tarry, goopy, gloppy stuff," Anderson says. "Our oil tends to be full of the stuff that tends to sink."

Meanwhile, no one has yet been able to get permission to survey the seafloor. Just east of Refugio—along an undeveloped stretch of shore where actor Brad Pitt owns a house—armed wardens from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told Pitterle to turn his boat around. The exchange was calm and friendly, but time-consuming: The wardens took 40 minutes to confirm we weren't allowed in. Ironically, just an hour before, Pitterle had idled the boat for about 45 minutes to sit in on a conference call that authorities held for non-profits like Channelkeeper. During the call, top officials from Unified Command—the group in charge of the clean-up, which includes state and national agencies and Plains All American Pipeline, the company that owns the burst pipe—said they wanted to work with non-profits, Pitterle says.

"What we were hearing, at least from the top of the command chain, is that they're trying to move in that direction of coordination and collaboration," he says. "I guess it was clear when we got there that it hadn't trickled down the command chain yet."

Thick oil in the water off of the Gaviota Coast. There are natural oil seeps offshore of Santa Barbara County, so it can be hard to tell if oil in the water here is from the seeps or from last week's spill. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper staff say this amount of natural oil would be rare for this area. (Photo: Francie Diep/Pacific Standard)

Thick oil in the water off of the Gaviota Coast. There are natural oil seeps offshore of Santa Barbara County, so it can be hard to tell if oil in the water here is from the seeps or from last week's spill. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper staff say this amount of natural oil would be rare for this area. (Photo: Francie Diep/Pacific Standard)

His experience echoes that of Anderson, who has built relatively cheap, remotely operated underwater robots he wants to send down to the bottom of the ocean at Refugio. (Before I talked with them, Pitterle and Anderson were not aware of each other's plans.) Both talked about calling and emailing various officials all weekend, seeking permission to visit the site. The officials they managed to get on the phone were enthusiastic—but then both men would get transferred to someone else. Pitterle and Anderson attributed the confusion and delay to the bureaucracy around the official response to the spill.

"We get that this is a huge operation and complex and there's multiple agencies and they have to deal with a lot of different aspects of the community," Pitterle says. "I guess it's frustrating because I feel like our organization, and researchers at the university, we do have special expertise and resources we can bring to the table and it's unfortunate that the resources are being wasted."

"The kind of oil we have in Santa Barbara is heavy, tarry, goopy, gloppy stuff. Our oil tends to be full of the stuff that tends to sink."

Anderson is cheerier about the situation. "I understand there's 3,000 things going on in everyone's mind right now," he says, "so we're still pushing." He notes that he hasn't had trouble conducting research this week on beaches besides Refugio. But experts don't believe there will be much oil on the seafloor outside of Refugio.

Meanwhile, seafloor sampling was an historically difficult and expensive process, which explains why it has never been a standard part of clean-up plans despite its importance. Perhaps, Anderson muses, that's why authorities weren't sure how to deal with his request.

But things are different now, he argues. "It's now to the point where this is cheap and we can train someone, not in an afternoon, but in the course of a day or a couple days. It need not be an insanely expensive thing where someone needs to be paid $300 an hour," Anderson says. "In this age of technology, one thing I think should be changing is how we respond to oil spills."

Lead photo: Santa Barbara Channelkeeper staff and friends take photos of the water off the Gaviota Coast. From left to right: Ben Pitterle, Leigh Wyman of the National Wildlife Federation, and Brian Hall, photographing for SBCK. (Photo: Francie Diep/Pacific Standard)

Related