Not all oil spills are created equal, so it seems.
Forever and a day, we have seen Santa Barbara County supervisors and others excoriate anyone involved in an accidental release of crude oil into the natural environment. Furthermore, prosecutors now treat accidents as criminal acts, e.g., the Plains All American Pipeline company was prosecuted for the Refugio spill for failure to maintain its pipeline and failing to report the spill expeditiously.
Well, it appears the oil-covered boot is finally on the other foot!
Come hear the sordid tale of a 600 gallon-plus oil leak in Toro! Toro! Toro! Canyon creek that has killed or soiled upward of 50 animals.
This story begins in 1882 when, according to a diminutive May 2021 county staff report, “Occidental Mining and Petroleum Corp. began construction on a horizontal tunnel at the site of a well-known oil seep in Toro Canyon. Such wells were commonly used to enhance oil flow. During construction, a large volume of water was inadvertently tapped.
“Further development of the oil resource was abandoned for the important water supply that was needed for the growing community of Summerland. As Summerland switched to other water supplies, the onsite separator fell into disrepair and numerous spills occurred in the creek. Significant spills in the 1990s resulted in oil flow to the ocean.”
As it turns out, the original well could not be plugged because it had collapsed. Moreover any attempt to do so could increase pressure on other natural seeps in the area, which seep on a continual basis.
The May report further states that it was the EPA that installed an oil water separator (without permits) in 1998 and operated the same until 2008, at which time they walked away!
Eventually, in 2009, the county received grant funding to assume operation and maintenance of the system through January 2019. Once the grant funding ran out, the county dithered while it scrambled to find funding sources. Meanwhile, the county continued to arrange for a pumping truck to collect the accumulated oil from the collector tank.
Eventually, it was discovered that the Thomas Fire (2017) damaged the onsite oil pipeline.
In the May 2021 report, the Public Works department brought all these aforementioned details to the attention of the board of supervisors, including information that oil from the pipe leak had entered Toro Canyon creek! Were any proactive actions taking place during these many months and years? It is not clear, because the supervisors are not talking.
One thing is certain, they didn’t exercise due diligence while the spill was creating a significant impact to local wildlife.
For instance, back in October 2020, the county public health department issued a notice of violation to the county for the onsite underground tank including the lack of inspections and maintenance of the same! Therefore, chronologically speaking, the May report to the board was submitted seven months after the notice of violation, and the creek cleanup occurred months after the board was notified of the leak.
Subsequently, it appears the county is getting prosecuted and rightly so!
However, the county is are sharing the dirty details as it now deals with this issue in closed session (a term used to describe a meeting of the board behind closed doors).
Ironic, isn’t it? Every single time there is an oil spill in this county, these same politicians hold a press conference, with lots and lots of pictures of dead or soiled animals, as they condemn and excoriate the responsible party.
This all begs the question, are county officials genuinely concerned for the environment or were they simply looking for opportunities to bash the oil industry? Regardless, the county failed to maintain and report.
Sound familiar? The county should be prosecuted accordingly. That’s Plain to see.
Andy Caldwell is the COLAB executive director and host of “The Andy Caldwell Show,” airing 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays on KZSB AM 1290, the News-Press radio station.