Biologists: It could be years before full damage of oil spill is known

May 21, 2015 5:18 PM by NBC News

Two days after a ruptured oil pipeline spewed crude into the waters off of California - tainting 9 miles of ocean teeming with coastal creatures - environmentalists are scrambling to assess how mucked up the ecosystem is.

This much is clear: It could be weeks before the beach near Santa Barbara is cleaned up, and even years before the damage to the water and wildlife is realized, scientists say.

But there is some relief that this spill, at 105,000 gallons, is on a smaller scale when compared to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the previous 1969 spill off Santa Barbara.

"There is reason to be worried about what happened. It's a serious spill," said Sean Anderson, an environmental scientist at California State University, Channel Islands, who was studying the area even before the latest disaster. "But we can't quite say the sky is falling."

The oil, which was discovered Tuesday, leaked from a pipe coming from an onshore facility and then spilled into a culvert that eventually emptied into the ocean.

The spill sparked a state of emergency on Wednesday night. The reason for why the pipeline busted remains under investigation, and crews began excavating the pipeline Thursday for clues.

Refugio State Beach, a popular tourist destination, became fouled with the smelly, black sludge. The beach has been temporarily closed through Memorial Day weekend, and Anderson estimates it's probably going to stay that way for "many weeks."

Cleanup crews in environmental waste suits have been shoveling clumps of oil from the beach and scrubbing off rocks. This area of the Santa Barbara Channel is known for its abundance of oil, so it's not uncommon to see it naturally seep onto beaches from below ground, Anderson said.

On the water, at least 7,700 gallons of "oily water mixture" have been skimmed and vacuumed from the surface, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Anderson doesn't believe all of the oil, particularly in the patches that measure a millimeter or less thick, can be sucked up. A lot of the oil is expected to simply roll out to sea.

"Weather basically can Cuisinart the oil and disperse it," Anderson added.

Related: Historic Spill Hit Same Spot in 1969

As for the harm to wildlife, at least five oil-coated brown pelicans were counted, wildlife officials said Thursday, while biologists also discovered dead lobster, kelp bass and other fish.

Even if the death toll is relatively low, the impact to area marine mammals, such as dolphins and sea otters, could take years before it's fully understood, said Michael Jasny, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

A new study published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE found that the record dolphin die-off now occurring in the Gulf of Mexico is linked to contaminants in the water from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Dolphins don't avoid the oil sheens, which means they're "inhaling the fumes that could very well cause disease," said Jasny, the NRDC's director of its marine mammal protection project.

"The oceans are so opaque to us," he added, "and the harms we inflict in it are often invisible."

If anything, the latest spill has reignited the debate over the safety of oil transportation, Jasny said, and also highlights how oil spill cleanup technology has not widely advanced.

The tactics for cleaning up this spill are basically the same as the methods available in 1969, when an estimated 3 million gallons of crude flushed into the waters off Santa Barbara following an oil rig blowout.

"Every so often you have a major disaster - obviously this one isn't on the same scale as the others," Jasny said, "but yet, nothing much seems to change."

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