Cleanup crews fanned out on Wednesday across an oil-fouled California beach to scoop up gobs of petroleum spewed from a ruptured pipeline in the largest oil spill to hit the pristine but energy-rich Santa Barbara coastline in nearly two decades.
The breach was believed to have spilled up to 2,500 barrels (105,000 gallons) of crude petroleum, five times more than initially estimated after Tuesday's rupture, the pipeline company said in an update posted online on Wednesday.
Plains All American Pipeline called its latest estimate "a worst-case scenario," based on the pipeline's flow rate and other indicators.
The 24-inch-wide pipeline, which runs underground parallel to a coastal highway west of Santa Barbara, inexplicably burst late on Tuesday morning, belching crude oil down a canyon, under a culvert and onto Refugio State Beach before it reached the water's edge, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.
Plains shut down the line as soon as "abnormalities" were noticed by a control room operator, Plains said. But company spokesman Brad Leone acknowledged that a residual amount of oil in the pipeline drained out after that.
By Wednesday, a 4-mile (6-km) stretch of beach was blackened, and an oil slick spanned more than 9 miles (14 km) of the ocean, the Coast Guard said.
It marked the biggest oil spill in the region since an offshore rupture in 1997 that dumped up to 1,000 barrels of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, about 125 miles (200 km) northwest of Los Angeles, said Kevin Drude, deputy energy director of the county's Planning and Development Department.
That spill, and Tuesday's accident, pale in comparison with the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil that gushed into the channel from an offshore oil-well blowout in 1969 and still ranks as the largest oil spill ever in California waters.
Sensitive nesting sites
Still, Janet Wolf, who chairs the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, called the latest spill "a disaster" and "a worst-nightmare scenario."
Wildlife teams were dispatched to the scene to rescue any sea birds, marine mammals and other animals injured by the spill, but authorities said the extent of damage to wildlife was not immediately known.
Crews were focusing on three especially sensitive sites known as nesting areas for shore birds, including snowy plovers and least terns, said Alexia Retallack, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Refugio State Beach and adjacent campgrounds were to remain closed to the public through the Memorial Day holiday weekend, officials said. The area was also closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.
At daybreak, about 130 cleanup workers contracted by Plains were on beach scooping up globs of oil from the sand, raking up tar balls and disposing of the material in plastic bags.
Crews will also scrub soiled rocks, hose down contaminated areas and skim up oil left behind, Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams told a news conference on Wednesday in nearby Goleta.
Nine cleanup vessels plied the ocean, six of them corralling the slick with booms and three others skimming up oil from the surface. By about 8:30 a.m., crews had managed to recover about 120 barrels of spilled crude, most of that from the beach, officials said.
The pipeline that burst on Tuesday typically carries about 1,200 barrels of oil an hour from Exxon Mobil's Las Flores Canyon processing facility to a distribution hub in Bakersfield hundreds of miles away, company and county officials said.
The company said an internal inspection of the pipeline was conducted a few weeks ago but results had not yet come back.