The Pipeline Company Responsible for the Santa Barbara County Oil Spill Has Been Indicted

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But it will take years for researchers to fully assess and respond to the environmental impact.

By Elena Gooray


Spilled oil covers the beach at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

A Houston-based oil pipeline company has been indicted in the oil spill that dumped approximately 140,000 gallons of crude oil along the Santa Barbara County coastline last May. But while the legal battles over the spill are heating up, efforts to restore the affected environment creep along.

Plains All-American Pipeline has been indicted on 46 criminal charges for operating the spilled pipeline, according to the office of Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley. Dudley held a press conference about the spill today alongside California Attorney General Kamala Harris, as well as members of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Plains faces up to $2.8 million in fines plus further costs and penalties for the charges, the Los Angeles Timesreports.

The spill is believed to have funneled about 20,000 gallons of oil into the ocean about 15 miles west of Goleta, near Refugio State Beach. But fully understanding the impact of the spill will take years; accurately measuring environmental changes is painstaking, and some effects on local habitats, including animal populations, may take a while to appear. That’s exactly what happened following Santa Barbara County’s last major oil spill in 1969, as Francie Diep reported last year for Pacific Standard:

People initially reported that elephant seals, sea lions, and whales died because of the 1969 spill, but researchers laterfound those animals to have likely died from other causes. Conversely, it wasn’t until this year that a team of scientists was finally able to gather enough evidence to demonstrate that the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 killed bottlenose dolphins by injuring their internal organs.

The Refugio clean-up efforts have so far been more successful restoring soil onshore than clearing water offshore, local news reported last week. Those efforts will continue to morph as we learn more about the extent of the damage — work that will be very necessary, and very slow.