Oil Spill Reported Near Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres Forest

Oil Company Dumps More Than 2,100 Gallons of Industrial Wastewater and 200 Gallons of Crude Oil into Tar Creek, Upstream of Sespe Wild & Scenic River

Source of this article – Los Padres Forest Watch, February 1, 2007.

Ventura County, Calif. — Earlier this week, ForestWatch received several reports of a massive oil spill in the Los Padres National Forest, reports that were later confirmed by a BLM spokesperson and several newspaper accounts of the incident. ForestWatch staff visited the spill area the following day to view the damage firsthand.

Before and AFTER: More than 20 workers are on site to clean up the oil slick from Tar Creek.

The spill occurred on Monday or Tuesday, and by Thursday had covered up to three miles of Tar Creek in Ventura County, leaving globs of oil along its banks and blackening its waters. According to a report filed with the Office of Emergency Services, the spill involved more than 3,300 gallons of industrial wastewater and more than 200 gallons of crude oil. Late Thursday, officials doubled their estimate, saying that more than 400 gallons of crude had spilled. And on Friday, officials released final spill tallies, with more than 200 gallons of oil and 2,100 gallons of wastewater spilled.

The OES report identified the cause of the spill as “possible internal corrosion” that caused the pipe to burst. Authorities also say that recent cold weather caused expansion and contraction of the pipe. The pipe connects several oil wells to a large storage tank.

BEFORE and after: A pristine Tar Creek, taken last year just a few steps from the above photo.

Before crews could contain the spill, it flowed into Tar Creek approximately 5 miles upstream of the confluence with Sespe Creek. About 20-30 workers are on site, installing several earthen berms and using booms, suction trucks, and absorbent pads to prevent the slick from moving further downstream. Despite their diligent efforts, the oil was approaching within 1.5 miles of the ecologically sensitive Sespe Creek by the end of the day Thursday, according to a spokesman for the Department of Fish & Game.

Officials are taking precautions in the event that the slick reaches the Sespe, but remain confident that the spill will not travel much further. Officials reported that four endangered California condors inhabit the area. Sespe Creek is a federally-protected Wild and Scenic River that provides critical habitat for endangered steelhead. Tar Creek forms the southern boundary of a condor sanctuary, and the slick had already covered a significant portion of this stretch.

An oil well near the site of yesterday's oil spill. The Sespe Condor Sanctuary is in the background.

Thus far, no endangered plants or animals have been coated with oil, but it may be weeks before officials are able to fully assess the impacts of the spill on wildlife.

The spill occurred on national forest land in the Sespe Oil Field. With approximately 220 wells, it’s the largest oil field in the Los Padres National Forest. The lands are leased by Vintage Production California, a recently acquired subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Occidental is an international petroleum exploration and development company headquartered in Los Angeles, with a revenue of more than $11 billion in 2004.

The spill occurred in an area zoned for future oil drilling expansion. In 2005, the federal government approved a plan to expand oil drilling across 52,075 acres of national forest in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The spill occurred near one of the new drilling expansion areas.

The incident drew rebukes from ForestWatch and members of Congress including Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara). “This spill confirms what I have been saying for years, drilling for oil is a dirty business, said Rep. Capps. “While any report of an oil spill is troubling, I am particularly concerned that this spill could reach the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and pose a significant threat to the endangered California condor.”

Streambanks along Tar Creek are coated in oil.

“This is further proof that oil drilling expansion is incompatible with the protection of our local backcountry,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of ForestWatch. “If we allow even more oil drilling, spills like this one will become even more frequent.” Officials estimated that currently there is at least one spill per year in the Sespe Oil Field.

ForestWatch has notified several government agencies of our intent to file a lawsuit to protect the forest from oil drilling expansion and additional oil spills, with assistance from Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

This is not the first time that Vintage Petroleum has caused an oil spill in the area. According to the Office of Emergency Services, in November 2005, the company spilled more than 200 gallons of crude oil in the adjacent Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Earlier that same year, Vintage dumped more than 600 gallons of crude oil and wastewater into Maple Creek.

Officials estimate that cleanup could take another week.

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