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Santa Barbara Oil Spill Reopens Fierce Environmental Debate


Some dramatic images coming out of Santa Barbara Country, Calif., this week - crude oil spilling onto a pristine stretch of Pacific coastline and rescuers working to save oil wildlife. We likely won't know the full extent of the environmental damage from Tuesday's spill for several months. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the accident has already reopened a fierce debate over oil drilling.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Ahead of a holiday weekend, Refigio State Beach should be bustling with surfers, campers and wildlife watchers, instead it's all cleanup workers in protective Tyvek suits. They're combing the rocky, oil-coated shores, pulling up contaminated plants and tossing small, dead fish into plastic bags. Every now and then you see a much more troubling site - pelicans nose-diving into the oily waves, fishing. Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, says sea birds are usually the hardest to account for after spills because they fly off and potentially die somewhere else.

LINDA KROP: Any oil spill can have a devastating impact. And this oil spill occurred in the Santa Barbara Channel, which is known as the North Galapagos. It's one of the most biologically rich places on the planet.

SIEGLER: It's true. Some days from this beach you have as good of a change of spotting a pelican as you do a humpback whale. There's a lot of food here. This coastline's rocky reefs and dense kelp forests teem with life. So there's pressure for a thorough and expeditious clean up. Phyllis Grifman helps run a marine research team at the University of Southern California. She says it's one thing to clean up the areas we can see, but it's going to be a bigger challenge to get at the heavy oil sinking beneath the surface.

PHYLLIS GRIFMAN: And the bottom sediments are hard to clean. They're very fragile. There are lots of organisms that live both on the beaches and in the sediments off shore.

SIEGLER: That's why it's going to take so long to fully understand the scope of this disaster. And it's why environmentalists and biologists worry the long-term environmental toll here could be high. After the main cleanup is completed, scientists will be on site collecting samples and doing studies for months. Things here are bad, for sure. The spill occurred right between two recently protected stretches of the coat. But Phyllis Grifman says it could be a lot worse.

GRIFMAN: It looks really bad right now, but it is, in the scheme of things, a relatively small spill. And so that needs to be kept in perspective.

SIEGLER: In other words, it's nothing to the scale of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf, or the 1969 oil spill that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel, not far from this week's leak. That 1969 disaster helped lead President Nixon to later sign landmark federal environmental laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Clean Water Act. Locally, it's also what led to the creation of the Environmental Defense Center. Again, Linda Krop.

KROP: You know, we have so many more regulations and laws in place than we did 46 years ago when the 1969 spill happened, and we have so many advancements in the technology, and you still cannot prevent an oil spill.

SIEGLER: Environmentalists are seizing on this week's spill to try and reignite the national debate over off-shore drilling. The Santa Barbara Channel was one of the first places in the U.S. where off-shore exploration took place.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Get oil out. Get oil out. Get oil out.

SIEGLER: This week in downtown Santa Barbara, activists protested and criticized the safety record of the company behind the spill, Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline. The company's executives have been very public after this accident, appearing at news conferences and issuing formal apologies to the community. Patrick Hodgins is director of safety and security for Plains.


PATRICK HODGINS: And we do truly regret and we are committed to cleaning up this incident as quickly as possible and mitigate any further impact to the environment.

SIEGLER: Hodgins pleaded for patience as cleanup continues and pledged the company will restore trust with the community. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Santa Barbara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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