California Refugio Oil Spill

On May 19, 2015, an oil pipeline ruptured releasing up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean near the pristine Refugio State Beach located in Santa Barbara County.  The oil spill area stretches over 9 miles of the California coastline. Refugio State Beach and fisheries for both fish and shellfish are closed.

Overflight map. Credit, Coast Guard.

Overflight map of spill area. Credit, Coast Guard.

Damage has occurred to the sensitive habitat of the California least tern and the snowy plover, birds protected by the Endangered Species Act. The spill continues to threaten marine life in the area, including marine mammals, birds, and fish populations.

Unfortunately, this is not the first oil spill for the Santa Barbara coast. In 1969, a major oil spill occurred in the Santa Barbara area as a result of a well blowout. One of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters at that time, the legacy of that incident includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system.

Plains All American Pipeline constructed the in ground pipeline in 1987. Its carrying capacity is approximately 150,000 barrels (6,300,000 gallons) of crude on average per day. The crude oil is transported from an above-ground storage tank facility in Las Flores to refineries throughout Southern California.

The Response

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency in Santa Barbara County to assist oil spill response on May 20.

A Unified Command response composed of eight federal, local, and state agencies and the  Plains All American Pipeline is coordinating the clean-up effort. On the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard lead efforts to control and clean up the Refugio oil spill, but the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also involved.

The NOAA Office of Responses and Restoration is charged in determining the oil spills effects on complex ecosystems. The process used by NOAA is called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). NOAA has a scientist on the ground conducting preliminary NRDA assessment of the effects for fish, wildlife, surrounding habitats, and public use of those resources.


Bird getting cleaned.  Credit, NOAA.

Bird getting cleaned. Credit, NOAA.

Incident command for the spill has set-up a hotline at 800.228.4544 for volunteers, which will be updated as opportunities become available.

Local nonprofits are directing people to check CalSpillWatch and California Volunteers for updates as well.

Report oiled, injured or deceased wildlife:
The public is urged to call and report any oiled Wildlife at 877.823.6926 .
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is working with birds brought in by California Department of Fish & Wildlife to catch and care for wildlife.

“Please do not pick up oiled wildlife; you can cause more harm than good,” the agency said.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network will be stabilizing birds brought in by California Department of Fish & Wildlife staff, getting them warm before being transferred to the International Bird Rescue organization in San Pedro, which has 44 years of experience and the facilities to treat oiled seabirds.