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10 California Oil Spills Bigger Than The Refugio Oil Spill -- We Think

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Eared grebe slicked during the 2007 Cosco Busan spill in San Francisco Bay, another spill too small to make this list. | Photo: Chris Clarke

Santa Barbara County is reeling this week from a pipeline accident that spilled an estimated 105,000 gallons of crude oil near Refugio State Beach, much of which has reached the ocean. Beaches have been fouled along a nine-mile stretch of coastline, with untold damage to one of the most ecologically important pieces of the California landscape.

And, sadly, it's nothing unusual. Though the estimate of how much oil flowed out of the pipeline operated by Plains All American may rise, and the extent of the slick may spread despite efforts to contain it, spills of crude oil and the products we make from it are an everyday occurrence in California.

In fact, at current estimates of the Refugio Oil Spill's size and extent, this disaster -- as bad as it is -- doesn't even come close to being the worst in California's history. It doesn't even make the top five.

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We're not kidding when we write that oil spills are an everyday thing in California. The state's Office of Emergency Services records reports of spilled petroleum products ranging from thousand-barrel slicks of crude oil on the ocean to a couple quarts of improperly discarded motor oil. According to OES's spill database, more than 760 such spills have been called into their office in California since March 1 of this year. And it's safe to assume that for every spill called into OES by energy companies or emergency responders, several go unreported.

(While we're on the topic, you can report spills you may see by calling (800) 852-7550.)

While many of the spills in the OES database are relatively minor, it doesn't take a spill the size of the one currently soiling Refugio Beach to cause catastrophic damage to wildlife. In January 1986, the barge Apex Houston lost a hatch cover as it was being towed from a Bay Area refinery to Long Beach. About 26,000 gallons of crude oil sloshed out of that hatch, a quarter of the estimated spillage at Refugio Beach. Estimates are that more than ten thousand birds died as a result along hundreds of miles of coastline. After the M/V Stuyvesant spilled an estimated 2,100 gallons of oil just outside Humboldt Bay in 1999, one-fiftieth the oil thought to have been spilled in Santa Barbara County this week, an estimated 2,400 or so birds have died.

And of course, the more oil that gets dumped into the environment the more that potential for damage is magnified.

In compiling this list of ten California spills larger than the Refugio Beach spill, we had to make a few decisions. First, we limited it to crude oil and products made directly from petroleum; we left out accidents such as the July 1991 Dunsmuir train derailment that dumped close to 20,000 gallons of the highly toxic pesticide metam sodium into the Upper Sacramento River, wiping out all aquatic life in 20 miles of river.

Secondly, we're not venturing guesses as to which spills caused more ecological or public health damage, but rather just comparing amounts of oil spilled.

Thirdly, we might be missing a spill or two. The history of oil spills in California is oddly hard to research online, with no authoritative and exhaustively researched list. We've compiled these spills from a number of sources: there might be more we didn't find.

And last, we've stuck with specific incidents for which there's a credible, hard estimate of the actual amount of oil spilled into the environment. That means omitting things like the estimated 20 million gallons of used motor oil dumped into the environment by people maintaining their own vehicles because that's not a single incident, or the 1953 sinking of the Jacob Luckenbach off the San Mateo Coast because no one knows how much of the ship's 457,000 gallons of bunker fuel actually made it out into the open ocean.

With that in mind here are those 10 big historic spills, In order of increasing size.

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Diesel fuel in Suisun Marsh | Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
 

Suisun Marsh, 2004

On April 27, 2004, 123,774 gallons of mid-grade diesel oil spilled from a 14-inch pipeline operated by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners into a managed salt marsh owned by a Solano County duck hunting club near the city of Fairfield. The thick reddish diesel injured or killed a wide range of wildlife, including the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse. Oiled birds were seen some miles away heading for San Francisco Bay, though no positive connection between those birds and the spill was ever made.

Thankfully, the diesel fuel was mainly successfully confined to the Drake Sprig Duck Club's 224-acre property. By November, a bit more than 50,000 gallons of the fuel had been recovered from the marsh: the rest had either evaporated or settled into the marsh's sediments. Kinder Morgan, which operates a number of pipelines in the refinery-heavy area surrounding San Pablo and Suisun bays, eventually agreed to pay more than $5 million in fines over the Suisun Marsh spill, along with other spills in Oakland's Inner Harbor and the Lake Tahoe area.

2004 was a bad year for Kinder Morgan pipelines in California: A Kinder Morgan gasoline pipeline exploded in Walnut Creek in November, killing four people.

Santa Clara River, 1994

This big spill, almost twice the size of current estimates of the Refugio Beach spill, was sparked by the Northridge Earthquake on January 17, 1994. An estimated 190,000 gallons of crude oil flowed from a fracture in an ARCO pipeline just east of Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita. The crude got to the Santa Clara River by way of a storm drain and drainage ditch, and damaged about 16 miles of the riverbed, in a stretch from the spill site downstream as far as Piru -- where emergency responders had built an earthen dam to contain the flow.

Among the casualties were about 100 acres of riparian vegetation, already in short supply in Southern California, and habitat for sensitive species such as the endangered unarmored three-spined stickleback and least Bell's vireo.

In January 1997, three years after the quake and spill, ARCO agreed in a court settlement to pay $7.1 million in restitution to cover costs of restoration of the river's habitat. That habitat has taken a beating from the oil industry: a 1991 spill from a corroded section of a Mobil Oil pipeline in Valencia dumped about 74,000 gallons of crude into the river, killing at least 250 birds and other animals.

Huntington Beach, 1990

On February 7, 1990, the tanker American Trader, owned by Attransco, impaled itself on its own anchor at the Golden West Refining Company's oil terminal at Huntington Beach in Orange County. 301,395 gallons of Alaskan crude oil -- three times the size of the Refugio Beach spill by latest estimates -- poured out into the Pacific three miles off the shore, fouling the waters and about 15 miles of beach near the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

Attransco was hauling the crude for British Petroleum, which 20 years later -- known as BP -- would achieve notoriety for its involvement in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill killed an estimated 1,000 birds, and the cleanup cost state and local agencies a minimum of $35 million. Attransco, BP, terminal operator Golden West, and other involved companies eventually paid about $27 million in settlements and court judgments as a result of the spill.

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Shell Oil's refinery in Martinez | Photo: Naotake Murayama/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Shell Oil Martinez Refinery, 1988

On April 23, 1988, at Shell Oil's refinery in Martinez, an aging drain line ruptured. The line was connected to a 12.5 million gallon storage tank, and an estimated 400,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from the tank. The spill continued for a day before someone closed the sewer valves.

That would have been bad enough on its own. But according to a government lawsuit filed after the spill, Shell had negligently left sewer valves open that allowed the crude to flow past retaining levees surrounding the tank.

That oil flowed into the Carquinez Strait, which connects San Pablo and Suisun Bays -- and in a larger sense, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta. Carquinez Strait is a choke point for salmon migration: all salmon that spawn in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watershed swim through the mile-wide Strait, and the spill took place during a time of heavy salmon migration.

Shell's spill devastated nearby wetlands along the south shore of the Strait and Suisun Bay. Though the company recovered 300,000 gallons of the spilled crude and local marshes have been partially restored, the effects of that spill are still being felt.

In November 1989, Shell agreed to pay almost $20 million in fines and damages for the spill, at the time the largest cash recovery in U.S. history for damages to natural resources. You can bet that agreement sent shockwaves through the boardroom at Exxon, whose tanker the Exxon Valdez had spilled 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound the previous March.

Avila Beach, 1950(?)-1996

In 1977, an explosion on Front Street in the tiny beach town of Avila Beach led to a discovery that infuriated residents. The explosion was caused by petroleum fumes that had seeped out of the surrounding soil and collected in the building's basement.

Those fumes turned out to originate from underground pipelines leading from an oil terminal on the town's pier to storage tanks owned by the company Unocal. The company had acquired the tanks in 1906; at some undetermined point afterward, perhaps as early as 1950, those pipelines had begun to leak. The precise duration of the leaks is disputed, but few disagree that they at least lasted for decades.

The pipelines carried a variety of products, mainly crude oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel. The result: a "plume" of underground contamination beneath Avila Beach's main drag Front Street, the row of mid-century commercial properties facing the beach. Conservative estimates are that at least 400,218 gallons of petroleum products ended up beneath the resort town.

Most of Front Street was torn down, the contaminated soil excavated up to 15 feet deep, and the commercial properties rebuilt. Unocal agreed in 1988 to pay what turned out to be about $200 million to ameliorate the pollution, but many residents say the rebuilt town lacks the charm that drew them there in the first place.

Arizona Standard - Oregon Standard collision, 1971

Two Standard Oil tankers collided in the fog just outside the Golden Gate Bridge at 1:40 a.m. on January 18, 1971. The Arizona Standard was headed into the Bay from an oil terminal of the San Luis Obispo coast, while the Oregon Standard was leaving the dock called Long Wharf, connected to the Richmond Chevron refinery. Stuck together by the collision, the two ships drifted into San Francisco Bay and anchored just off Angel Island.

The Arizona Standard's cargo stayed safely on board. But an estimated 831,222 gallons of the Oregon Standard's cargo -- viscous, heavy, toxic bunker fuel -- hit the Bay, where tides and waves spread it throughout the estuary and up and down the coast from Point Reyes to Half Moon Bay -- nearly 50 miles of shoreline.

If there could be an upside to a disaster like the Arizona Standard-Oregon Standard collision, it was in the way the event galvanized the nascent environmental movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hundreds of volunteers turned out to help with the cleanup, including transporting oiled water birds to makeshift rehabilitation facilities. The spill likely killed more than 10,000 birds; of 4,300 or so brought to rehabilitators, only 300 ever recovered enough to be released. Lessons learned from rehab during this spill were used in later disasters, meaning a much higher rate of recovery for afflicted birds.

San Francisco Bay, 1937

Not much is known about the immediate environmental effects of San Francisco Bay's worst oil spill. That's mainly because it took place in the late 1930s, when we just weren't paying much attention to ecological issues.

But what we do know about the incident is that the passenger ship President Coolidge rammed the oil tanker Frank H. Buck at Lands End just outside the Golden Gate Bridge on March 6, 1937, and that the Buck then spilled about 2.73 million gallons of crude oil into the water -- either immediately, or after storms thwarted halting efforts to pump remaining oil out of the ruined ship's cargo tanks.

According to witnesses of the day, more than 20,000 birds died of oil contamination in the days after the collision. Rehabilitation efforts were nonexistent, and members of the SPCA patrolled local beaches with shotguns to put ailing birds out of their misery.

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Platform A, where it all went south. | Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Santa Barbara, 1969

The Refugio Beach spill isn't the first rodeo for local beaches in Santa Barbara County. They've been through this before, most dramatically during a gigantic oil spill that occurred over the first few months of 1969.

The great Santa Barbara Oil Spill, which eventually resulted in more than 4.3 million gallons of oil hitting the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, started with a blowout January 28 on Unocal's "Platform A," six miles offshore near Summerland.

Efforts to cap a gusher on one of the platform's wells failed, and the resulting pressure tore through nearby geologic formations, causing oil to surge from the seabed. Estimates in hindsight suggest that about 200,000 gallons of oil emerged from the ocean floor each day during the height of the spill, By April the disaster's leak rate had slowed, but as late as mid-1970 between five and ten barrels of oil a day were making their way into the ocean.

Within 24 hours of the blowout, oil had covered about 75 square miles of the Santa Barbara Channel, with slicks eight inches thick piling up against booms in Santa Barbara and Ventura. Coastal neighborhoods were heavy with the odor of crude oil, and birds died by the thousands -- as did other marine life such as dolphins.

Beach cleanup was a new thing in 1969, and efforts to rid tidepool habitats and rocks of oil ended up as damaging to wildlife as the oil would have been. More than 3,600 birds were documented as dying as direct victims of the spill, though the actual number was surely much larger. In June, Life Magazine published a spread of photos from nearby San Miguel Island showing hundreds of dead marine mammals whose carcasses were still coated with oil. Oil from the 1969 Santa Barbara spill turned up on beaches from San Diego to Pismo Beach.

As a result of the 1969 spill, which released more than 40 times as much oil into the Santa Barbara Channel as this weeks' Refugio Beach spill has, the State Lands Commission has refused to approve new leases for oil drilling off the California Coast, a reaction that has held fast for close to half a century.

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There's a toxic secret beneath the Guadalupe Dunes | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Guadalupe Oil Field, 1950-1994

Need yet another reason the name "Unocal" once raised blood pressures along the Central Coast? Consider the company's oil field in the rural, working class town of Guadalupe in San Luis Obispo County. Perched atop the ecologically unique Nipomo Dunes, Unocal's Guadalupe Oil Field is the location of one of the state's worst environmental disasters of any kind.

Over the course of the last half of the 20th Century, Unocal's pipelines at Guadalupe leaked "diluent" -- a class of solvents intended to dilute the locally sourced Santa Maria Crude to make it flow more readily through pipelines. Think of the above-mentioned Avila Beach, where a leaky Unocal pipeline created a plume of contamination including 400,000 gallons of mixed petroleum products. Then multiply that by 30: state regulators estimate Unocal pipelines leaked more than 12 million gallons of diluent into the dunes at Guadalupe, creating more than 80 distinct plumes. The diluent contaminated groundwater, the dunes and the beach, with some of the chemical mixture reaching the Pacific Ocean. In the 1990s, surfers said that plying the waves in the area would leave them slicked with oil.

The leaks at Guadalupe were first detected in 1988. Work to clean up the contamination is ongoing, three decades later. In 1988 Unocal agreed to pay $43.8 million in penalties for the pollution, which critics charge the firm had known about long before public outrage forced government agencies to take action. Those penalties don't cover the cost of cleanup, for which Chevron is now footing the bill, having acquired Unocal's liabiolities along with the company's assets in 2005.

The pollution at the dunes is especially bad news for local wildlife, including Threatened snowy plovers and red-legged frogs.

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In this 1910 photo, the gusher breaks up a heavy containment box towed onto the site with chains. | Photo: via San Joaquin Geological Society
 

Lakeview Gusher, 1910-1911

The nine spills we've talked about so far total about 19 million gallons of petroleum and its component products spilled into California's waters, air and land. That's a lot of oil: more than the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, and about 180 times the amount spilled on Refugio Beach this month.

And all together, they are an oily drop in the sludgy bucket compared to California's -- and the world's -- worst oil spill. Not even the massive Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, which spread perhaps 210 million gallons of crude in the Gulf of Mexico, or the deliberately caused Iraq Oil Spill in 1991 (as much as 252 million gallons) come close.

Simply put, the Lakeview Gusher, which spewed across the landscape of the Kern County community of Maricopa from March 1910 to September 1911, is the single worst known oil spill in the history of the world. In that period almost 379 million gallons of crude oil sprayed uncontrollably from an ill-placed Kern County oil well in a Unocal oil field, at peak flows approaching 800,000 gallons per day,, and only the sacrifice of the health of hundreds of workers kept that oil from flowing into Buena Vista Lake.

Those 600 or so oilfield workers labored to cap the gusher -- which had utterly destroyed the well's derrick -- and then built earthen dams and levees to contain the flow once that Plan A failed. First-person accounts describe men working completely covered in oil, with nothing in the way of protective equipment, and a plague of serious skin conditions among workers as a result.

Despite the oil's retention in a makeshift reservoir surrounding the gusher and hastily-built pipelines siphoning the overflow to Unocal's Avila Beach facility, less than half the oil was recovered. The rest either soaked into the ground and local aquifer, or evaporated. Even so, the sudden surplus of crude from the Lakeview Gusher caused oil prices to crash worldwide.

And then, on September 10, 1911, after 544 days of uncontrollable gusher, something shifted deep in the earth. Enough pressure had been released that the geological formation holding the oil collapsed, reducing pressure even further and ending the disaster.

Except it's not over yet: congealed crude oil still covers the ground at the Lakeview Gusher site, providing mute testimony to a disaster that stands out by its sheer scale from all the other disasters inevitable in a world that relies on petroleum for its energy fix.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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