Two days before the Memorial Day weekend, a stretch of coastline at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, looks more like a hazmat scene than a place for beach-goers. A pipeline ruptured Tuesday at the Santa Barbara County coast and caused a large oil spill, whose slick spanned 9 square miles late Wednesday.
Workers in white protective suits and helmets were scooping lumps of crude from the blackened sand and hauling it off in clear plastic bags. They worked on the beach throughout the night.
The owner of the ruptured pipe, Plains All American Pipeline, is taking full responsibility and said 20,000 gallons of oil may have reached the ocean.
"We apologize for the damage that it's done to the wildlife and to the environment. ... We are here to make it right," Plains All American Pipeline president and CEO Greg Armstrong said.
While wildlife and park officials don't have a clear estimate of the environmental impact, they're seeing the first victims of the disaster.
So far, skimmer boats and vacuum trucks have reportedly collected at least 6,000 gallons of oil, a fraction of the 100,000 gallons that may have leaked from the pipe. The crude is now threatening area wildlife.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley is considering criminal and civil charges against the pipeline owner.
"Animals have died and suffered. ... The kind of effect that this oil will have will last a lifetime, and we want to hold whoever's responsible for this responsible," Dudley said.
It wouldn't be the first legal trouble for Plains All American Pipeline. The company was forced to pay $44 million for pipe upgrades and civil penalties five years ago, after 10 leaks around the U.S.
In the meantime, several thousand people who usually visit the popular camping and sun-bathing destination will be turned away, as two state beaches will remain closed through the holiday weekend.
"We realize that it's an inconvenience and we know that people's plans, especially over this weekend and next weekend are going to be impacted by these activities," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Michelle Rogow said.
Plains All American says the pipeline that ruptured was not part of the upgrades from the 2010 settlement, but contends there were no prior incidents on that line. Investigators won't know the cause of this rupture until the pipe is excavated.