LOS ANGELES — California authorities scrambled on Wednesday to contain an oil slick and clean up normally tourist-friendly beaches after a pipeline rupture dumped thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean.
A day after the spill near Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, US Coast Guard spokeswoman Jennifer Williams said helicopter overflights had shown the slick stretched some 14km along the Pacific Ocean coast.
As green groups warned of the possible longer-term impact, teams of white-clad workers used rakes and hands to scoop up oil strewn on the sand on Refugio Beach, where a campground was evacuated.
The spill was estimated at up to 105,000 gallons (400,000 liters), of which some 21,000 gallons of crude oil may have entered the ocean, according to an official update Wednesday afternoon.
Santa Barbara area beaches would normally be preparing to host thousands of visitors for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, but the affected area was out of bounds.
The leak – which began around midday on Tuesday – – affected a pipeline operated by Plains All American Pipeline, which stopped the flow of oil, the company said.
It said the oil reached the ocean through a drain which has now been blocked off, and "no additional oil is reaching the water". Plains All American Pipeline said it does not know how much oil leaked.
"Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact," the company said in an email.
Environmentalists sound alarm
Green groups, including the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), lamented the spill and said there had been failings.
"There continues to be a number of questions... including why there was no automatic shut-off on this relatively new pipeline, and why the early response was not more successful in halting the flow," said its boss Owen Bailey.
"This region is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife including numerous species of endangered whales and iconic coastlands that bring people from across the world to visit," he added.
Kathryn Phillips, California director of environmental group Sierra Club, added: "Every time we hear about an oil spill, we hold our breath and hope it won't get worse."
"So now we are hoping this Santa Barbara spill is rapidly contained and cleaned up." She continued: "How many more signals do we need from the oil industry that public health and the environment aren't at the top of its list when it decides how much to invest in creating its products? "It's time we all demand better from this incredibly wealthy industry."
The 24-inch pipeline, built in 1987, transports crude oil from a nearby above-ground oil storage facility to refineries throughout southern California.
It typically operates at some 50,400 gallons per hour.
Officials said they were attempting to contain the spill.
"The response effort is focused on protecting the safety of first responders and the general public while minimising the impact to the environment and preventing migration of oil to the shoreline," according to the official update.
Santa Barbara was the scene of what was then the largest oil spill in US history, when in 1969 several million gallons of crude spewed into the ocean after an oil rig blowout. — AFP