After the Refugio Oil Spill: Service Biologists Reflect on Their Experiences and the Future

By Ashley Spratt
September 2, 2016

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bill Standley documents wildlife impacts at Refugio State Beach in the early days of the Refugio oil spill (May 2015) as a flock of California brown pelicans skim the water in the background.  Credit: USFWS

On May 19, 2015, the Refugio Oil Spill deposited more than 120,000 gallons of crude oil onto one of the most biologically diverse coastlines on the west coast. A year after response and clean up efforts began, three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists look back on their experiences.

One year ago, a corroded oil pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach, releasing more than 120,000 gallons of crude oil onto coastline west of Santa Barbara.

While the bulk of the oil impacted land, some 21,000 gallons flowed into the channel, pushing tar balls and oil sheen as far south as Los Angeles, killing hundreds of marine mammals and birds, and disrupting businesses and tourism along the Coast.

On May 20, 2015, the California Department of Parks and Recreation closed Refugio State Beach and El Capitán State Beach. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Here, biologists and environmental clean up teams deploy to Refugio Beach. Credit: USFWS

Numerous biologists from local, state and federal agencies helped with the response, including three biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Ventura.

Jenny Marek leads the Service’s environmental contaminants program in the Pacific Southwest Region.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, Jenny Marek.  Credit: USFWS

“When the initial spill report came in and we saw both the quantity of oil potentially spilled and the location, we knew it was serious,” Marek says. “We were the closest natural resource trustees to collect baseline data right after the spill occurred. We mobilized straight away.”

Marek joined other federal, state and local responders to set up a unified command center to coordinate response efforts for what became known in the media as the Refugio Oil Spill.

A year has passed since the cleanup was completed, but the story of the Refugio oil spill isn’t over.

“While the full extent of the spill’s impact is still under investigation, we do know that tar balls were documented washing ashore as far south as Manhattan Beach, more than 120 miles from the spill origin,” Marek says.

As the oil impacted land and sea along the coast in the early hours following the pipeline rupture, it began to come into contact with marine, avian and terrestrial wildlife, from sea lions and other marine mammals to shorebirds, seabirds and invertebrates.

Oiled Western snowy plover at Coal Oil Point Reserve. Credit: Chris Dellith/USFWS.

California brown pelicans and other seabirds, and California sea lions were among the most visibly impacted. Wildlife recovery teams worked to recover, or rescue and rehabilitate, more than 260 birds and more than 160 marine mammals during the response.

Service biologist Lena Chang worked as a wildlife recovery responder, supporting the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

“All oil spills are tragic, but this one being in our own backyard really hit home,” Chang says, as she recalled the two-week-long stretch working 12- to 15-hour days to save as many birds as possible.

Senior biologist, Lena Chang. Photo Credit: USFWS

“On the first day of the response, we picked up birds that were completely covered and weighed down in crude oil” she says. “Only by their size and silhouettes could you recognize them as pelicans, with their blinking eyes indicating they were aware and responsive.”

In addition to the tough job of recovering oiled animals, teams also tried to educate the public. News reports began to show images of college students and other community members trying to rescue oiled birds with their bare hands.

“Attempting to recover an oiled animal without proper training can be very dangerous to you and the animal,” Chang says. “We understand the desire for people to help but the best way they can do this is to document the location of the animal and report it. Animals that have been oiled can be easily harmed if mishandled. And the chemical components of oil can be dangerous and harmful to human health.”

Service biologist Jeff Phillips served as liaison between on-the-ground activities and the detailed planning required in the weeks ahead. Phillips provided guidance to ensure the response and clean-up operations themselves did not further harm wildlife and sensitive habitats.

“Working at the Incident Command post was an intense experience,” he says. “The hours and weeks on end with little time off was tiring and very hard on my family at home.”

At the end of each day, Phillips made calls to other Service biologists to recruit them for the day ahead. “I was, and still am, totally awed by the selflessness and professionalism of our responders,” he says.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jeff Phillips surveys along Arroyo Quemada Beach in Goleta, Calif., to assess damage in the early days of the Refugio oil spill (May 20150). Credit: USFWS

While the bulk of response and clean-up operations occurred in the immediate weeks following the spill, the assessment of damage to natural resources would remain ongoing for the next year. The process is formally known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).

Through NRDA, teams led by state and federal scientists (called trustees) quantify the injuries to fish, mammals, birds and coastal habitats, as well as lost public use of those resources, with the goal of seeking compensation from the party responsible for the spill.

"The ultimate goal of our NRDA process is to understand how the oil injured the environment and conduct restoration to compensate the public for that injury," says Marek, who will continue to coordinate the Service’s role in the assessment and restoration process in the coming years.

Staff from the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response and University of California collect invertebrate samples at Refugio State Beach one year after the spill as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Credit: CDFW/OSPR

As the agency responsible for endangered and migratory bird species, the Service’s data collection has been focused on birds like the California brown pelican, and rare wildlife like Western snowy plovers, California least terns, tidewater gobies and California red-legged frogs.

The NRDA trustees are working cooperatively with Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the spill. The company is liable for costs to study the environmental injury from the spill and costs of restoration projects.

Wildlife rehabilitators with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network examine a live oiled cormorant in a mobile hospital exam room on June 6, 2015. The cormorant was brought in by Service biologist Lena Chang. Credit: Lena Chang/USFWS

“Just having oil on a beach does not mean it was injured,” Marek says. “The question we have to ask is how did that oil cause injury to the environment and that can be the tricky part. That’s where having robust scientific studies will really make our case.”

One study includes collecting sand crabs at different times during and following the spill to determine the concentration of hydrocarbons in the sandy beach ecosystem and lethal concentrations to those organisms. A second study applies modeling to determine the total number of birds and marine mammals actually impacted by the spill, not just those recovered.

The trustees are now moving into high gear to identify restoration opportunities. This began last winter with a public forum to explain the NRDA process to community members and to begin accepting submissions from the public for restoration project ideas.

Natural Resource Damage Assessment scientists from UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, CDFW and others track changes in rocky intertidal habitats after the oil spill. Since these surveys were repeated multiple times following the spill at sites within and adjacent to the spill zone, changes in the rocky intertidal species abundance and diversity can be observed. Credit: USFWS

“As we move forward, public input into the NRDA process is going to be crucial,” Marek says. “We will work to develop a restoration plan based upon our injury assessment and community input, and will select and implement restoration projects that best compensate for the injuries we observed.”

Restoration project proposals must show they will provide tangible benefits such as increasing wildlife numbers, enhancing habitat or improving recreational use.

While the media coverage has waned, Service biologists and countless others continue to work to heal the coast from the Refugio Oil Spill. A backyard haven to so many southern California residents, both people and wildlife alike, this stretch of coastline may forever be changed but remains resilient with the unwavering support of the surrounding community.


Ashley Spratt is the public affairs officer for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office in Ventura, Calif.