Study Predicts Santa Barbara Channel Oil Spill

A catastrophic oil spill is almost inevitable in the Santa Barbara Channel in the next decade, and the present ability of the oil companies and the state and federal governments to contain it is dubious, a report prepared for the Santa Barbara County Energy Division says.

“The marine safety risk is significant and is equivalent to the probability of approximately two very severe oil spills (each rated 10 on a scale of 1 to 10) occurring during the next decade,"said the report, which was compiled by Science Applications International Corp. of Santa Barbara.

Oil industry spokesmen questioned the conclusions of the report, called the Marine Emergency Management Study.

“There’s a great deal of concern that some of the analyses . . . are inaccurate and misleading,” wrote Dan Mihalik, manager of Texaco’s Gaviota Terminal, in a rebuttal to the Santa Barbara Planning Commission.

Some local officials also doubted the likelihood of a major spill.

“The probability of this happening is very, very low,” said Ventura County Supervisor Madge Schaeffer, whose district includes Port Hueneme, a port for cargo freighters and oilfield supply ships plying the Santa Barbara Channel. “The oil companies are extremely sensitive to the environmental damage they can cause.”

Schaeffer said a spill off Ventura County would be more efficiently handled than was Exxon’s 1,000-square-mile leak in the Prince William Sound near Valdez, Alaska. “We’ve got a lot of qualified people in very close proximity,” she said, adding that the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme would enlist thousands of Seabees in the cleanup effort.

Released March 15, 10 days before the Exxon disaster, the report reflects the increased scrutiny of oil shipping, drilling and pipeline transmission off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

John Doherty, an aide to Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), said this week that the congressman intends to revive his proposal for maritime traffic controllers to oversee vessels in the Santa Barbara Channel. And the Department of Transportation is expected to decide this month whether to require oil tankers to head well out into the Pacific beyond the Channel Islands.

The growing concern stems from the Alaskan oil spill--the worst in U.S. history--and the sinking of the PacBaroness, a freighter loaded with copper and oil, after a collision with another ship in the Santa Barbara Channel in September, 1987. In addition, oil-tanker traffic could increase in the channel.

An average of 180 tankers per year take on oil at Santa Barbara County’s three offshore marine terminals. That number could rise to 280 if a proposed pipeline to Los Angeles refineries isn’t built, the report said.

Port Hueneme alone logs 20 trips per day by oil support vessels though the channel to the expanding offshore oil fields north of Point Conception.

Oil companies that use the channel pay for the services of a Carpinteria-based company called Clean Seas, which is on 24-hour alert. Equipped with ships named Mr. Clean I, Mr. Clean II and Mr. Clean III that are stationed off Santa Barbara, Point Arguello and Avila Bay, Clean Seas received high marks in the Santa Barbara study, which cited its state-of-the-art cleanup equipment.

But even that equipment, which is in Ventura, Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, “is unlikely to prevent a major spill from impacting the shore, primarily because of the limitations of spill clean-up equipment under even moderate seas,” the study said.

Skip Onstad, Clean Seas’ manager, said the report “presents a distorted picture. If I just read the report, I too would raise my arms in horror.”

Santa Barbara Channel and Alaska can’t be compared, Onstad said, because local tankers are half the size and local preparedness is much better. Each oil site stores its own spill equipment, he said, and Clean Seas’ ships are always nearby.

But Clean Seas couldn’t immediately handle a Valdez-sized spill, Onstad said, because the large equipment needed for such a spill is in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The largest equipment available locally--a 185-foot ship called Gulf Fleet 49 with huge pumps designed to suck oil off the ocean surface--is in Port Hueneme. Most clean-up equipment is kept at Clean Seas’ Carpinteria facility, which is closer to the eastern channel platforms.

The report also criticized the emergency plans of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and several oil companies as confusing and contradictory. It contended that too many agencies--at least nine state and federal bureaucracies--are responsible for ocean cleanups. And that doesn’t count the slew of local agencies that get involved when oil drifts ashore, the report said.

“The exact chain of command among all these players was not clearly stated,” the report said. “This ambiguity will likely complicate and confuse the decision-making process during an actual emergency.”

“Chain-of-command protocols are not needed,” Mihalik wrote in his rebuttal. “The national contingency plan, combined with state and local plans, is clear. There is an overall planning and response structure in place, starting at the federal level and working its way down to the actual facility owner/operator.”

Mihalik rejected the report’s suggestion that a computer program outline the specific responsibilities of each agency.

“Because of the infinite number of variables,” he wrote, “a computerized decision-making system would be overwhelming in complexity and of little practical use. The professional, responsible personnel have the training and expertise to know what steps to take.”

But at least one local official wasn’t convinced.

“The report scares us to death, which is something that had to be done,” said Bob Sollen, a Santa Barbara County planning commissioner.

After the Valdez spill, commissioners vowed to reduce tanker traffic in the channel.

Their resolve will be tested when Chevron asks to transport oil in tankers from its $450-million Gaviota oil and gas processing facility and the newly built Gaviota Marine Terminal, instead of using a pipeline.

The Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors is expected to give initial permission April 11, but revive the issue in October, when a pipeline linking Santa Barbara and Ventura counties with Texas refineries is completed.