Pipeline Spews 21,000 Gallons of Oil Along California Coast
A broken pipeline spewed oil into the Pacific Ocean Tuesday, creating an oil slick four miles long on some of the state's most beautiful coastline at Refugio State Beach just north of Santa Barbara. An estimated 21,000 gallons of oil spilled, according to an early Coast Guard estimate. Refugio State Beach and area fisheries are closed, and it is unknown when the beach will reopen.
"I'm a surfer, I'm a fisherman—I like sitting out here and breathing it in," construction worker Josh Marsh, who was part of the clean-up crew, told the Los Angeles Times. "To see it like this, to see it destroyed—it hurts."
After people reported a foul smell, Santa Barbara first responders found an onshore pipeline spilling into a culvert and then into a storm drain that empties into the ocean. It was shut off by a Coast Guard crew about three hours after discovery.
“Channelkeeper is sickened to learn of the oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel and is extremely concerned about its inevitable impacts on water quality and marine life," said Kira Redmond, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. "We will be out on the water to investigate the extent and impacts of the spill, monitor the containment efforts, keep the public updated, provide any assistance we can with the clean-up and ultimately ensure that the responsible party cleans up the oil that has marred our precious beaches, ocean and marine life."
That "responsible party" is Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline. It issued a statement saying, "Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact."
“Oil spills are never accidents. They are the direct result of substandard oversight of fossil fuel companies who put their profits above human and environmental impacts," Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard said. "Now is the time for our leaders to take responsibility for the oil companies they let run rampant in our country. This doesn't have to be our future. If our leaders don't have the courage to stand up to the oil industry, we'll continue to see spills from California to Alaska and beyond. We must demand better from President Obama as he looks forward in greenlighting risky drilling projects like Arctic drilling that endanger our oceans and the climate."
The Sierra Club said that the incident illustrates the unreliability of oil infrastructure and the danger it presents to the surrounding environment.
“Every time we hear about an oil spill, we hold our breath and hope it won't get worse," said the group's California director Kathryn Phillips. "So now we are hoping this Santa Barbara spill is rapidly contained and cleaned up. Just weeks ago, we learned that the state agencies have been allowing the oil industry to inject dirty oil waste water into clean groundwater. Now we have this spill that nobody caught until several barrels of oil had already tumbled into the ocean. How many more signals do we need from the oil industry that public health and the environment aren't at the top of its list when it decides how much to invest in creating its products? It's time we all demand better from this incredibly wealthy industry."
“Unfortunately with accidents and oil development, it is not a question of if, but of when," said Owen Bailey, executive director of the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. "But to see this level of spill into such a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch. These waters are known as the Galapagos of North America with numerous species of endangered whales migrating through marine protected areas and off the iconic and beloved Gaviota Coast."
PHOTOS: Ruptured pipeline spews oil into ocean at Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County http://t.co/aB82YwTBq2 pic.twitter.com/bc6UnwIr9M — ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) May 20, 2015
Yesterday's spill occurred in the same oil-rich waters as a major spill in January 1969 when an offshore oil rig blew out, dumping 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean and killing thousands of seabirds and marine animals. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. waters at the time and still ranks third behind 1989's Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. It is widely credited with being a key impetus behind the modern environmental movement.
“The oil spill near Refugio State Beach is a stark reminder of the dangerous risks expanded oil drilling poses to Santa Barbara County's environment and its residents' quality of life," said Food & Water Watch's Santa Barbara County organizer Becca Claassen. "This incident is all the more reason to ban fracking both offshore and onshore to help prevent future spills and protect Santa Barbara's beautiful beaches and coastal environment."
By Ajit Niranjan
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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