Ventura Oil Spill: How to Apply Lessons Learned

June 23, 2016 — Oozing through the Hall Canyon in Ventura, a crude oil leak was spotted at 5:30 a.m. this morning headed toward the Pacific Ocean. The oil spill traveled over half a mile towards Ventura’s beaches and ocean before it was contained by Ventura County firefighters. Fortunately, reports indicate that the leak was stopped before hitting the water, which would have even more devastating ecological effects to our coast. With last year’s Refugio Oil Spill still fresh in our minds, there are a number of lessons learned regarding response and regulations we hope to see applied, to both prevent and minimize the environmental impacts of these oil spills.

Rapid response and containment is critical before oil reaches a waterway. Unfortunately, with so much oil infrastructure in California, the question isn’t if oil spills will happen, but when. The environmental impacts once oil is spilled are unavoidable, but if it reaches the ocean the cleanup and containment is nearly impossible, which makes those impacts much worse.

Spill size estimates are often incorrect or under-reported. The initial estimate of today’s spill was 5,000 barrels, which has since been reduced to 700 barrels –the equivalent of nearly 30,000 gallons. Unfortunately, initial spill size estimates are often low-balled. For a leak to be measured it must first be detected. Unfortunately these systems aren’t always functional. It’s imperative that close attention is provided in the review and determination of a final spill volume so that the responsible parties are held accountable for damages.

Oil spill response authorities should work with local entities to ensure that local knowledge is incorporated into spill response. Locals know their favorite spots best. They can help monitor progress on cleanups and any potential negative impacts afterwards, as well as ensure that cleanup efforts return natural resources back to baseline status.

Public outreach is critical. It’s important that the potential public health impacts associate with an oil spill are clearly communicated to the public, especially when oil is spilled in high-use areas like neighborhoods, trails and beaches. Air quality is currently being monitored in Ventura based upon noxious odors and concerns of crude vapors related to today’s spill.

Pipeline monitoring and maintenance is imperative to find and fix structural issues before they become problems. Pipeline infrastructure in the state is aging, putting our valuable natural resources at great risk. Last year in the aftermath of the Refugio oil spill, Governor Brown signed SB 295 into law, which requires annual pipeline inspections with State Fire Marshal oversight (previously they had been done every other year).

Oil pipeline operations should be improved to reduce the amount of oil spilled when there is a leak or rupture. This is especially true in ecologically sensitive areas such as riparian corridors and coastal watersheds. Leak detection, automatic shut-off systems, and other technologies are designed to minimize leakage during oil spills. SB 864 was passed and signed into law last year requiring oil companies operating in California to develop plans by 2018 for using such technologies to retrofit their pipelines by 2020.

Additional regulations and policies are still needed to help protect communities from noxious oil spills, including:

  • Closing loopholes in the California Coastal Sanctuary Act that allow for slant drilling out into coastal waters. The CCSA was designed to prohibit new oil and gas leasing in state waters, but unfortunately a loophole exists in the state legislation that allows for oil and gas extraction in state-owned submerged lands if those lands are being drained from producing wells upon adjacent federal lands.
  • State Lands Commission has authority over leasing of oil and gas operations in California. Heal the Bay has been encouraging this agency to prioritize identification, monitoring, and tracking of legacy sources of oil and gas in the environment including leaks, seeps, and abandoned wells. There are hundreds of abandoned wells in the Los Angeles region alone, which could be contributing to leaks and pollution. The State Lands Commission should work with relevant public and private entities to ensure such legacy sources are abated and cleaned up.

How you can help. It is important to resist the urge to participate in cleanup efforts. Oil is a hazardous liquid with toxic vapors, and needs to be removed with care. The best thing you can do is to report any abnormal amounts of oil to the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. Likewise, if you see any oiled wildlife, do not pick up or try to rescue the animal. Wildlife capture takes special training to prevent injury to the animal as well as the person. Please reported oiled wildlife you see to 1-877-UCD-OWCN and trained experts will respond.

For additional information on the Ventura County oil spill, you can check out the Los Angeles Times article.