Not Everything Local is Good: Plains All American Pipeline Befouls California’s Backyard

Let me begin by saying there are no pictures for this post. You can find photos in the newspapers.

For me, driving northward along the coast, Santa Barbara is where everything dark or negative starts to fall away. The ocean dotted with boats, the small sandy coves and beaches, the clarity of the air and the scent of salt move me indescribably.

Until yesterday.

Just north of El Capitan I smelled something acrid and closed the car windows. Out on the water a number of vessels, of various sizes, seemed to all be headed for the same spot just outside the surf. “Good fishing?” I wondered out loud.

And then we saw it: the sea turned dark and turgid, a clear line of demarcation appearing well of the coast, marking a boundary between water and oil. We turned off at the El Refugio exit and stood on the bluff.

Below us, gaseous, strangely smooth and vast was the El Refugio oil spill, caused evidently by a broken pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline.

This beach is marked by California history. The Chumash camped here. In fact, there were so many Native American dwellings and middens in the region that when Plains All American  initially proposed its pipeline, archeologists opposed it because of the many sites that were compromised or ruined.

The beach at El Refugio provided a refuge to Hippolyte de Bouchard, sometimes referred to as California’s only pirate. He was a bandit who liked to terrorize the coastline and made the safe harbor a place for his crew to regroup and hang out.

Supposedly Joaquin Murrieta–the erstwhile model for Zorro, the Mexican Robin Hood, the hero of the poor and the scourge of the establishment, and the subject of multiple ballads and corridas–escaped the authorities in the twisting and hidden spaces of El Refugio Canyon, hiding in the ravine above the water.

Smugglers were also fond of El Refugio, stashing their loot and hiding in the cove’s caves or in the ravine.

But these old time pirates and bandits were small potatoes. Today the ravine is occupied by Plains All American and their pipeline that moves crude oil to ExxonMobil facilities. The bottom of the canyon, the entire beach–in fact the slick now stretches more than nine miles, closing the beaches at El Refugio and El Capitan and moving inexorably eastward–is blackened. ¬†The news reported a few hours ago that we are at 109,000 gallons of oil in the ocean and counting. A website now depicts oil coated marine life.

Plains All American Pipeline had so many leaks associated with their company that in 2010 they were forced to make a large settlement with the E.P.A., who contended that Plains All American had done significant damage in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas and California (not to mention Canada), leaking more than 273,000 collective gallons of oil. The settlement has apparently not slowed down the Texas firm though (somebody, tell me, why is it always Texas?). They have been cited in connection with several other large leaks, and just last year they were responsible for the oil geyser and leak in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village.

Constructed in 1998, the pipeline is not–oddly–under any Santa Barbara county supervision, unlike all other energy infrastructure in that county. (Since undergoing the catastrophic oil spills of 1969, Santa Barbara is justifiably nervous in regard to energy infrastructure.) Plains All American went to court, successfully suing to have their structures reviewed only by the much more remote office the State Fire Marshall. So no one is really watching.

When I see the enormous oil platforms that stand in the Santa Barbara Channel between the coast and the Channel Islands, I can’t help wondering. Aren’t these our natural resources that fouled with petroleum? I never gave any permission to wreck or mark the California coast, nor have I ever received any payment for the depletion of our own resources. We do not profit from what goes on in our own back yard.

The offices of Plains All American released a statement saying that “Plains regrets this release…” Notice the passive language; Plains “regrets,” but they’re not expressing specific guilt. Mistakes were made.

You know what? I really regret it too. It doesn’t get any more local for me than the Central Coast. I’m sickened by this example of careless exploitation.

When I hear debates over the Keystone Pipeline, and (more locally) when I hear about the “need” to have new rail tracks built for the express purpose of carrying oil to the refinery at Santa Maria, when I hear about fracking, and more drilling off the coast of Alaska, I’m enraged. These people are not even responsible for the infrastructure they already possess. I look at the nearly abandoned Morro Bay power plant and at the black welling oil at El Refugio, and want to say “No more.”

This is our backyard.

It makes me miss the old fashioned pirates and Joaquin Murrieta.


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