Angler files lawsuit in Refugio oil spil

SANTA BARBARA — An oil spill just off the coast of Santa Barbara made national headlines when thousands of gallons of crude oil were released into the water May 19 after a 24-inch pipeline owned by All American Pipeline burst. An angler filed a class action suit against Plains All American Pipeline, alleging the spill will cause several years of environmental harm in the area and cause local businesses to lose money.

Multiple media reports labeled the Refugio oil spill an environmental disaster. Others say the spill did impact the local sportfishing and tourism economy but was not otherwise a significant event.

Santa Barbara Harbor Manager Mick Kronman said the city’s boaters and waterfront venue did not feel the impacts of the Refugio oil spill, which occurred northwest of Santa Barbara near Refugio State Beach.

“[There is] no oil in the harbor [and] no impacts to boaters except fishermen who must stay out of areas closed by the CDFW [California Department of Fish and Wildlife],” Kronman said.

At least one angler believed the Refugio oil spill did cause significant damage to the Santa Barbara area and will continue to harm marine life and local businesses for decades.

The law firms of Keller Rohrback and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein filed a class action lawsuit against Plains All American Pipeline earlier this month on behalf of Stace Cheverez.

“Oil floated out to sea, creating a slick that stretched for miles, contaminating several State Marine Conservation Areas along the way, and forcing the closure of beaches, fishing grounds, and shellfish operations,” the complaint alleged. “These waters are home to hundreds of sensitive animal species, and serve as the backbone of the local economy. Tourists come to these beaches to enjoy the unspoiled sand and water. People support themselves and their families by harvesting fish and shellfish from these waters. All that has been damaged by this spill and that damage will likely last for decades.”

Cheverez’s class action complaint, which seeks at least $5 million from Plains All American Pipeline, further alleged about 28 miles of coastline was impacted by the oil spill within 10 days of the pipeline burst.

“It has already impacted numerous Marine Protected Areas that provide vital breeding and feeding grounds for marine species,” the complaint alleged. “Numerous, fish, birds, and marine mammals have died after being covered in oil or exposed to the oil’s toxic compounds.”

Also according to the complaint, a local kayaking company lost about $3,000 in revenue after 25 people cancelled kayak reservations because of the oil spill.

The attorneys who filed the class action lawsuit described Cheverez as a commercial angler and recreational diver of lobster and sea urchin. They allege Cheverez was dependent upon the fisheries allegedly harmed by the oil spill.

“Species like grass rockfish spawn during the winter and spring in the eelgrass and kelp beds close to shore. At the time of [the] spill, those juvenile fish were returning to those areas to feed and grow. Those are the same areas where [Plains All American Pipeline] has spilled tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil,” the complaint alleged.

John Henigin, a local angler and host of Fish Talk Radio, said while the oil spill did result in the loss of some marine life, commercial angling and recreational sportfishing was allowed to continue off the Santa Barbara coast except for the segment of ocean at Coal Oil Point, which was shut down by state officials.

The negative economic impact on the sportfishing fleet was compounded by the oil spill occurring ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, Henigin added. He opined the oil spill resulted in fewer tourists visiting Santa Barbara during the unofficial start of summer, meaning not as many people boarded the boats to drop a line in local waters.

Economic impact aside, Henigin said the oil spill was unfortunate but well short of an environmental disaster.

“The company that did it seems to be slowly responding,” Henigin said, estimating somewhere between 300 and 600 volunteers helped with clean up.

He added Santa Barbara’s waters and coastline constantly experiences natural oil seepage, with tar regularly making its way ashore or into the ocean and impacting marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of crude oil naturally seeps into the water from the ocean bottom near Santa Barbara. Most of the seepage, according to NOAA, occurs near Coal Oil Point. 

According to information posted on the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) website on June 6, recreational anglers were permitted to fish anywhere surrounding the Refugio oil spill site. A portion of the Pacific Ocean between Cañada de Alegria and Coal Oil Point was shut down by state officials and remained closed into mid-June. Fishing is allowed around Channel Islands and the area west of Cañada de Alegria near Point Conception, according to DFW.

The posted information also addressed how oil impacts fish and shellfish.

“Fish are less likely to come in contact with oil. Oil usually floats on the surface and fish can often swim away,” DFW officials stated. “If exposed to oil, fish can remove oil chemicals from their bodies quickly.”

DFW added lobsters, crayfish, crabs and shrimp have “some ability to move away from oil” and have a “moderate” ability to remove oil chemicals from their respective bodies if exposed.

However, clams, mussels and oysters have a greater chance of being contaminated with oil chemicals, hence posing a higher health risk to humans, according to DFW.

A website accumulating daily statistics of the oil spill stated about 14,267 gallons of “recovered oily water mixture” were recovered through June 3 and as many as 22 vessels were in the water this month skimming the ocean surface for debris.

Four miles of shoreline between Refugio and El Capitán state beaches were directly impacted by the May 19 pipeline burst, according to Visit Santa Barbara. Campgrounds at both state beaches, which are located near Gaviota, remain closed until further notice. 

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