A top Ventura County fire official on Thursday admitted that his department botched its response to a Christmas Eve report of an oil spill at McGrath State Beach, allowing hundreds of barrels of crude oil to flow from a ruptured pipeline into a fragile wetlands lake.
“I’m accepting the responsibility,” county Assistant Fire Chief David Festerling said. “We are the hazardous materials response agency for Ventura County.”
Festerling said that at least six other local public safety agencies also failed to check a beachcomber’s report of the spill, a mistake that let oil leak for another 21 hours.
That daylong lapse contributed significantly to an 84,000-gallon leak of heavy crude oil that state officials now believe lasted at least three days.
Since cleanup began on Christmas day, emergency teams have recovered about three-fourths of the estimated 2,000 barrels of oil that spilled from a ruptured decades-old pipeline and flowed into half-mile-long McGrath Lake. Fifty barrels were recovered from the Pacific Ocean, where it was pumped when a farmer switched on a lake-leveling pump by remote control Christmas morning.
The toll of dead birds smothered by the spill climbed to 122 on Thursday. Another 54 oil-soaked birds are still alive.
The beach remains closed from the Santa Clara River to Channel Islands Harbor.
Meanwhile, the state’s top oil spill response official criticized local agencies’ early failure to either send investigators to the reported spill or to notify the state Office of Emergency Services as required by law.
“The local procedures apparently did not provide us with (the warning) we needed,” said Pete Bontadelli, administrator of the state Department of Fish and Game’s oil spill prevention and response unit.
He said his office, which is leading the cleanup and investigation, expects to contact local agencies to “stress the proper reporting procedures.”
Bontadelli, at a noon news conference, also said the Oxnard spill demonstrates the need for stronger oil field regulations and clearer lines of state responsibility by two state agencies--the fire marshal and the division of oil and gas--over oil field pipelines.
Jurisdiction is important because testing and maintenance requirements of high-pressure pipelines monitored by the fire marshal are much more stringent. The ruptured line--like nearly all oil field lines--has been considered a low-pressure line and exempt from testing requirements.
Bontadelli said he will recommend that the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson tighten state regulations to make sure pipeline testing responsibilities are clear and oil fields are operated more safely.
Officials for Bush Oil Co., which operates the ruptured eight-inch pipeline, said that even after six days of investigation, they still aren’t sure what caused the leak or why they failed to detect it for so long.
“They have to answer that for us as well,” Bontadelli said. “I’d like to tell you that we know all the answers about what caused the spill--we don’t.”
Bush Oil operations manager Ron Klarc said that before the break, about 600 barrels of oil a day flowed through the ruptured pipeline from a tidelands storage tank to another tank a mile away.
Klarc said workers measure each day how much oil has left the first tank and how much has entered the second. The company, however, has not yet been able to figure out how the daily checks failed to expose the large oil leak for days.
The answer to that question may help decide whether criminal negligence charges are filed by the Ventura County district attorney’s office against Bush Oil or its employees, said Stephen Sawyer, staff lawyer for the state oil spill unit.
Sawyer, whose findings will be forwarded to local prosecutors, said his inquiry also will focus on what investigators discover when they dig up the broken pipeline. Excavation could begin as early as today, officials said.
Negligence might be established by the design of the pumping system that feeds the broken line, he said.
In addition to possible criminal charges, the state attorney general’s office could seek civil penalties of up to $250,000, Sawyer said.
The company could also be charged an administrative penalty of $10 for each gallon of oil spilled and not recovered, he said. And, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board is authorized to seek additional penalties.
Amid the continuing cleanup and Bontadelli’s calls for reform, local agencies were scrambling to explain why they mishandled a sighting Christmas Eve morning by a Ventura electrician whose dog wandered into oil at McGrath Lake.
Calls from Bruce Fincher, 37, to the Channel Islands Harbor Patrol and county sheriff’s dispatchers were referred without investigation to the Oxnard police and fire dispatcher, the California Highway Patrol and the county Fire Department.
The county Fire Department called the Port Hueneme Police Department and the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies not yet identified, Festerling said.
None of the land-based agencies sent out an officer to investigate. The Coast Guard dispatched a boat along the coastline even though the spill was reported inland, but spotted no oil on the ocean, Festerling said.
The Sheriff’s Department, CHP and county Fire Department decided not to check out the report because they concluded it was in Oxnard’s jurisdiction. Oxnard officials said they did not respond because they believed the spill was in county territory.
The pipeline rupture, in fact, is in unincorporated Ventura County near Harbor Boulevard. But much of the spill flows through McGrath State Beach, which is in the city of Oxnard. McGrath Lake, where nearly all of the oil collected, is in both jurisdictions.
After reviewing dispatch logs and tapes of phone calls, Festerling said that his dispatchers should have sent the county Fire Department’s toxic spill squad to the lake.
Festerling said his dispatchers never gained a commitment from any land-based agency to check out the spill before dismissing the call. Nor did they follow state procedures by calling the state Office of Emergency Services 24-hour hot line to report the sighting.
“Six or eight agencies touched this and there wasn’t a cross-check in the bunch,” Festerling said. “We’re looking at why and what the agencies should have done . . . . There’s big room for improvement and we all need to get our heads together.”
Festerling said his agency will change its procedures so every reported spill is responded to regardless of jurisdiction. His department will also report all spills to the state Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento, he said.
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) also said Thursday that he plans to call a meeting of city and county officials within three weeks to review their responses to oil spills.
While local agencies debated who should have responded to early spill reports, about 250 begrimed cleanup workers continued clearing oil from McGrath Lake and collecting dead birds from surrounding marshland.
By Thursday morning, workers had recovered 1,535 of the 2,000 barrels of leaked oil. And working in blackened boats, they corralled much of the remaining crude with floating yellow booms and dragged oily clumps of debris into plastic bags for disposal.
Fish and Game employees dredged sediment samples up from the bottom of McGrath Lake to determine how badly it has been contaminated.
Bontadelli said he is satisfied with the progress of the cleanup by contractors hired by Taft-based Berry Petroleum, Bush Oil’s parent company.
“I’m comfortable working with Berry Petroleum,” he said.
He said the regional water board will be testing ground water near the spill to determine whether any oil seeped into water supplies.
Meanwhile, the Ventura County Public Health Department warned that shellfish tainted by the oil are poisonous. Dr. Gary Feldman, county health officer, recommended that people not eat shellfish from McGrath State Beach for at least three months.
Feldman also recommended that people not fish off the beach there for two weeks, because bottom-feeding fish can absorb oil.