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Another California Oil Spill Threatens Wildlife - May 24, 2015

    This past Tuesday, May 19th, a section of the Plains All American onshore pipeline about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, California ruptured, sending thousands of gallons of oil into the surrounding area. The exact amount spilled thus far is undetermined, but estimates put the number at over 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled and by Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County. The pipeline was below ground when it ruptured, which means oil could potentially make its way into underground aquifers and groundwater, however the more pressing issue is the oil that has spilled into the ocean. 
 
    Images continue to come in this week, showing the horrible problems oil spills pose on aquatic ecosystems. When oil is spilled into a body of water, like a river or ocean, the oil does not just stay in one place. As wave and wind action move the water, they also mix up the oil with the water as well, causing an oily water mixture to form that can spread out for many miles. 
 
    By Thursday, May 21st, Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams said that approximately 7,700 gallons of oily water mixture had been removed thus far, only a small fraction of the over 100,000 gallons of oil that may have emptied before the spill was stopped. Currently the oil spill covers at least a nine-mile stretch near Santa Barbara and while the clean up continues, the biggest worry is what will happen to local wildlife that comes in contact with the spilled oil. 
 
    Spilled oil can be very harmful for living things because many of the chemicals present are poisonous or hazardous. Spilled oil can cause some serious problems for many aquatic animals through both internal exposure, such as ingestion or inhalation, or external exposure, like skin and eye contamination. 
 
    External oil on animals can often lead to major problems; it can smother small fish and shellfish, coat feathers and fur, and blind animals. Birds covered in oil have difficulty flying and both sea birds and marine mammals covered in oil have extreme difficulty regulating their body temperature; a crucial ability for the cold waters off of California. 
 
    Since most oils float, the creatures most affected by oil spills in the aquatic ecosystem are animals like otters, seals and seabirds that are found at the surface or on shorelines. While other aquatic or semi-aquatic animals can also be affected, seabirds especially tend to have the highest mortality rates and population declines during and after oil spills. If oil remains on a beach for a while, other creatures, such as snails, clams, and terrestrial animals may also suffer.
 
    Spilled oil can last in the environment for a very long time. As seen during the Gulf Coast Spill, or the Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska, oil that is not collected or cleaned up can remain in the ecosystem for days, months or years and negatively affect animals at every level. Oils that persist in the ecosystem can cause long term health problems for animals like tumors or cancers due to the hazardous nature of the oil, and have permanent effects of local animal populations. 
 
    Usually shellfish and finfish are largely unaffected by oil spills that occur along the coast due to the fact that they do not come to the contaminated surface or shoreline. This means that their exposure to oil is relatively low however as oil continues to mix in with the water, it can eventually cause health problems for local shellfish if there is little water movement, because they cannot move or get away from the contaminated, unhealthy oil-water mixture.        
 
    Thus far there have been an undisclosed amount of dead lobsters, kelp bass and other marine invertebrates found because of the spill. There have also been a couple oil-coated pelicans, otters and sea-lions found that are being cleaned and cared for by rescue workers. 
 
    The current Santa Barbara oil spill is certainly an unfortunate situation, however it is much smaller compared to the 1969 oil spill that also occurred near Santa Barbara. The 1969 spill occurred when an offshore oil rig ruptured, sending millions of gallons of oil into the Pacific and onto California shorelines. NOAA estimates that overall as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil polluted the ocean and shores, and even after the rupture, they did not cap it for nearly a week and a half. Even after they managed to subdue the spill, the rupture had opened undersea faults, and oil and gas kept seeping into the water for the rest of 1969. The oil spill was Americas largest at the time and had far ranging consequences. 
 
    The spill resulted in the death of 3,700 birds, hundreds of other aquatic animals, protests, public outcries and more. Even President Nixon visited the oil streaked beaches to view the damage first hand. After visiting the 1969 oil spill, and receiving public pressure after “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and the fires on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, Nixon eventually created an environmental council in his Cabinet, and in 1970, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. 
 
    Clean ups for the current Santa Barbara oil spill are well underway and, while we can certainly mitigate much of the short-term damage, the long-term damage done to the local ecosystem will unfortunately linger for years to come. 
 
 
Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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