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The Effects of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, One Year Later

Catching up with a scientist who conducted surveys of humans and sea creatures in the wake of last year’s oil spill at Refugio Beach.
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An oil-covered crab stopped dead in mid-track on the beach near Refugio State Beach on May 20th, 2015.

An oil-covered crab stopped dead in mid-track on the beach near Refugio State Beach on May 20th, 2015.

One year ago today, a pipeline carrying crude oil along the Southern California coastline ruptured, unleashing up to 143,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network collected 204 dead birds and 106 dead marine mammals.

Immediately after the spill, a number of scientists in the Santa Barbara, California, area sprang into action, collecting data on its effects. Though those efforts should offer some results, they’re not all freely available: At the time of the spill, some of the researchers Pacific Standard contacted refused to share their results because they were to be used in a potential lawsuit by the state against the pipeline’s owner, Plains All American Pipeline. (Indeed, a Santa Barbara grand jury indicted Plains All American on 46 criminal counts earlier this week, with the charges under seal, the Los Angeles Times reports.)

But there is perhaps one way to get a sense of what’s at stake. This week, Pacific Standard caught up with Sean Anderson, an ecologist at California State University-Channel Islands who studied the spill and has shared his data publicly at conferences and online. Much of this work is now under review for publication.


Tell me about the size of this spill.

The spill overall was relatively small, compared to things like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. But it was still a large spill.

The other thing that’s important to say is that the amount of oil that was released has been revised several times upward. This is a common thing that happens.

What animals did you study after the spill? Why were they important?

The critters that we think were most impacted were likely to be those that were residing in the surf line, so, for example, the sand crab and the grunion. The surf line is the area between the highest high tide and the lowest low tide. That’s where that oil was hanging out most consistently.

Sand crabs are a really fundamental part of the sandy beach ecosystem. The birds eat them, the fish eat them. Grunion spawn at the time of year the oil spill was happening. So those eggs, which are laid in the sand and sit in the sand for several weeks while they develop — those guys were being bathed in oil-concentrated water.

What was the spill’s effects on those animals?

Now this part gets a little complex. Because we’re experiencing all this climate change, the ocean conditions last year were really weird. We were seeing a lot of dead marine mammals before the oil spill happened. We were seeing greatly reduced diversity and abundance of the critters that live in and around the beach. When this oil spill happened, it had impacts, but it was a little bit hard to detect. So, to prove we were seeing potential impacts from the oil spill, we took critters and oil from the beach, and, in a laboratory setting, we exposed these crabs and these little eggs to this oil.

Sure enough, at the concentration that the oil was floating around in the surf line, it was harming or outright killing a lot of the critters that live there. As for the actual magnitude — did we halve the population? Did we one-quarter the population? We can’t quite tell yet, but because a relatively small amount of beach was heavily oiled, we’re probably not going to see a huge impact, long-term, from this spill.

But I think some of the more significant impacts are actually on the human side of the equation.

What were the human impacts of the spill?

We surveyed beach visitors up and down the coast over 33 different beaches. The tarring that we saw was not consistent. We would get an area that was heavily tarred, maybe a couple inches thick of tar ball, and then we’d go a quarter-mile down the beach and we’d get an area that was relatively free from tarring. So the question was: Does having a beach that was heavily tarred influence people’s behavior?

We asked people, “How much money did you spend this past week at the beach, or are you planning to spend this coming week at the beach?” That was heavily affected by the amount of tar. At beaches that were heavily tar-balled, people were going to the beach, but they weren’t staying as long. They weren’t getting hotel rooms. They weren’t having the regular economic impact that you would otherwise expect. That was in the immediate wake of the oil spill.

We repeated those surveys at the end of the summer, about three months in, and we found their spending had gone back to not being affected.

So the effect of the oil spill was significant, but it was relatively short-lived, in terms of the economic impact.

What did you think of the government’s response to the oil spill?

They did the clean-up pretty well, but one issue was that we have a lot of technology that could have helped to document the spill and forecast some of its impacts, and they weren’t all brought to bear. Our underwater drone could have helped. And the answer was always, “No, you’re going to get in the way of the oil response teams.”

I know that I’m a nerdy scientist and I’m not in the command structure. I’m not trying to get in people’s way. But we have a lot of questions with the Deepwater Horizon spill that we haven’t fully been able to answer because we didn’t collect key data. There has to be a better way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.