The operator of an oil pipeline that broke and spilled thousands of gallons of crude across a scenic California shoreline says it could take weeks or even months before investigators find what caused the disaster.
Bad weather slowed cleanup efforts early Friday at the spill site in Santa Barbara County, where gusty winds whipped up waves as high as 4 feet, the National Weather Service said. Several days of calm seas had helped crews, but oil skimming vessels were brought in late Thursday, Santa Barbara news station KEYT-TV reported.
An estimated 397,000 litres of crude spilled Tuesday, and about 79,000 litres is believed to have made it to the sea and split into slicks that stretched 15 kilometres along the coast. As of Thursday, more than 34,000 litres had been raked, skimmed and vacuumed up, officials said.
The thick, powerful-smelling crude covered rocks and sand, and six oil-coated pelicans and one juvenile sea lion had been rescued.
Crews have yet to excavate the broken piece of pipeline, which under the law must be done in the presence of federal regulators and a third party, officials with Plains All American Pipeline LP said at a Thursday news conference.
"We have not even uncovered the pipe yet," said Patrick Hodgins, the company's senior director of safety.
The company would not yet say whether part of the cause was two malfunctions that occurred shortly before the spill was discovered.
"We were having some pump problems on the pipeline," said Rick McMichael, another Plains All American representative. "Whether it led to the leak or not is part of our investigation."
The 60-centimetre pipe, built in 1987, had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to the company. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.
After the spill, which closed a 37-by-11-kilometre area to fishing, many volunteers offered to help sop up oil and clean off animals, but they were being turned away and encouraged not to act on their own.
"We just don't have enough positions," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams said.
The latest spill is a drop in the bucket compared with a catastrophic blowout on the same stretch of coast in 1969, when a Union Oil platform blew out and spewed an estimated 11 million litres of crude along 48 kilometres of coast. Some 9,000 birds died, new regulations were passed and a new era of environmental activism began in the U.S.
Nevertheless, the new spill is being held up as another reason to oppose such things as fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas, the moving of crude by train, and drilling in far-flung places.
"What we see from this event is that the industry still poses enormous risks to an area we cannot afford to lose," said Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate more than 6,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines in at least 20 states, according to company reports. Those companies handle more than 4 million barrels of crude and other liquid fuels daily.
Since 2006, the companies have reported 199 accidents and been subject to 22 enforcement actions by federal regulators. The accidents resulted in a combined 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damage topping $25 million.
Corrosion was determined to be the cause in more than 80 of those accidents. Failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 70 times.
Enforcement cases against the companies resulted in the collection of $154,000 in penalties, according to a federal database.
Hodgins, of Plains All American, said the company has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2007 on maintenance, repair and enhancement of its equipment.
He also defended the company's safety record, saying accidental releases have decreased as the number of miles of pipelines has increased.