Associated Press

Thousands of gallons of oil sopped up from California coast

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Source: Associated Press

GOLETA, Calif. (AP) -- More than 7,700 gallons of oil has been raked, skimmed and vacuumed from a spill that stretched across 9 miles of California coast, just a fraction of the sticky crude that escaped from a ruptured pipeline, officials said Thursday.

Up to 105,000 gallons may have leaked from the pipeline Tuesday, and up to 21,000 gallons reached the sea just northwest of Santa Barbara, according to estimates from the pipeline operator.

The environmental impact was still being assessed, but there was no immediate evidence of widespread harm to birds and sea life.

The early toll on wildlife included five oil-covered pelicans, which were taken in to be cleaned, officials said. Biologists counted dead fish and crustaceans along sandy beaches and rocky shores.

The spill occurred along a long, rustic coast that forms the northern boundary of the Santa Barbara Channel, home to a rich array of sea life. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, sea otters and birds use the waters between the mainland and the Channel Islands, five of which are a national park surrounded by a national marine sanctuary.

Workers in protective suits shoveled black sludge off beaches, and boats towed booms into place to corral two oil slicks. The number of cleanup workers surpassed 300, and the number of boats working the slicks rose to 18, officials said.

They could get help from expected light winds and calm seas, said Sean Anderson, an environmental scientist at California State University, Channel Islands.

'When the water's choppy, the response gets complicated. But since the water's nice and flat, the oil sticks together and it's easier to spot and easier to pick up,' he said.

Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams said the slicks were moving seaward, not toward other beaches.

Regulators and workers with Plains All American Pipeline LP, which runs the pipeline, aimed to begin excavating the pipe Thursday to get their first look at the breach. The company also was removing contaminated soil.

Federal regulators were investigating the cause of the leak and the pipe's condition.

The 24-inch pipe, built in 1991, had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to the company. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.

Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate more than 6,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines in at least 20 states, according to company reports filed with federal regulators. Those companies handle over 4 million barrels of crude and other liquid fuels daily.

Since 2006, the companies have reported 199 accidents along their lines and been subject to 22 enforcement actions by federal regulators. The accidents resulted in a combined 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damage topping $25 million.

Corrosion was determined to be the cause in more than 80 of those accidents. Failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 70 times.

Enforcement cases against the companies resulted in the collection of $154,000 in penalties, for violations including not doing enough to prevent pipeline corrosion, failing to inspect valves frequently enough and not preventing lines from being over-pressured, according to a federal enforcement database.

Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety for Plains, said the company has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2007 on maintenance, repair and enhancement of its equipment.

'Safety is not just a priority; it's actually a core value at Plains,' he said.

There was no estimate on the cost of the cleanup or how long it might take.

Soiled beaches and the powerful smell of petroleum led officials to close popular campgrounds at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches through the Memorial Day weekend.

The coastline was the scene of a much larger spill in 1969 - the largest in U.S. waters at the time - that is credited with giving rise to the American environmental movement.

Environmental groups have used the latest spill as a new opportunity to criticize fossil fuels.

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Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this story.

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