Ventura oil spill misses the ocean, but damage on land is unclear

Sean Anderson, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands, collects samples to test for toxicity from a creek in Prince Barranca after an oil spill in Ventura County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Before the sun rose Thursday, Kirk Atwater’s wakeup call was a noxious breeze that filled his bedroom with fumes.

He stepped out of his ranch that overlooks an arroyo in the Ventura hills and saw a creek of thick, black goo traveling through the canyon that was dry just the day before.

A pipeline valve had somehow opened and sent thousands of gallons of crude oil down into an arroyo that flows through the city of Ventura and reaches the ocean near the Ventura Pier.

Atwater, 56, called 911 and the oil pipeline company. His early notice helped officials stop the oil in a drainage basin before it reached the ocean, but not before an estimated 29,400 gallons of unrefined crude bled into the canyon.


It marked the latest significant oil spill in California and underscored the hazards of the oil and natural gas industry along the Central Coast, where last year a corroded pipeline spewed 143,000 gallons of crude oil onto Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara.


An oil spill that may have released more than 29,000 gallons of crude into a grassy canyon in Ventura County did not reach the beach or trigger evacuations. (Al Seib and Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s no excuse for this happening,” said Henning Ottsen, a 74-year-old engineer who has lived for more than three decades across the canyon from where Thursday’s spill originated. Some of the oil flowed onto his property, coating rocks and foliage with black tar.

“We know the oil fields are back in the hills,” he said. “It should be assured they take care of the infrastructure and not let this sort of thing happen.”


County officials initially estimated that up to 210,000 gallons had flowed out of the pipe, but they later downgraded the figure. The oil flowed down a steep canyon slope and traveled about half a mile through Prince Barranca, a gorge that typically fills with water during storms.

The oil then pooled in a storm water basin, allowing officials to block the crude from flowing farther.

“There’s no way it can get to the ocean,” Ventura County firefighter Marisol Rodriguez said.

Still, residents were concerned that the toxic liquid would harm wildlife. Ottsen, whose ranch and garden sit about 60 feet above the barranca, said he typically sees coyote, deer and mountain lion tracks in the dirt during the mornings.


“It’s a freeway for the animals,” he added.