Oil spills have a devastating impact on the environment and animals. Yet, despite our understanding of how destructive oil spils are, they seem to be happening more and more often, creating damage that is likely to last for generations. The most recent disaster occurred on the coastline of Santa Barbara on May 19, 2015 when a pipeline carrying oil to refineries in Souther California broke and spilled oil into a storm drain. Oil spilled into the ocean for hours, causing Refugio State Beach and El Captain State Beach to close.

More than 100,000 gallons of oil along nine miles of the California coastline. This oil spill is the worst to hit this coastline since 1969, when over 4.2 million gallons of oil were spilled into the ocean. We learned just how devasting the impact of an oil spill in this region can be on animals and the environment in 1969, but unfortunately, it looks like we are being forced to relive this devastation in current times – and it is ultimately the animals that have to pay for it.


Could This Spill Have Been Avoided?

While a pipeline breaking and spilling oil into the environment is bad enough, there were several mistakes made by Plains All American Pipeline in this situation that made it even worse. After the company detected there might be a problem with the pipeline, they took two to three hours to find the actual failure and report it, and there was also no automatic shutoff valve on the pipe, further complicating the situation.

Just imagine your water pipes bursting while you are at home, but instead of shutting them off you just sit there and watch your house flood. Then when you finally decide to do something about it there is no water shutoff valve. Sounds ridiculous, right?

To add insult to injury, the hazardous material training for clean up volunteers was delayed, therefore slowing down the process of cleaning up the mess. All of these problems only made an already terrible situation more of a disaster.

The Impact on Animals

The real victims of this oil spill are the animals. After the spill occurred, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began looking for injured animals with the help of approximately 272 people. In the first few days alone, the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response (yes, they have to have an entire department to deal with oil spills) sent five pelicans to rehabilitation centers and found two others dead.


How Will the Santa Barbara Oil Spill Impact Local Animals?


A surprising ally in the fight to save the animals injured was SeaWorld San Diego. Following the spill animals, including sea lions and elephant seals, were brought there for medical care. Animal care specialists from SeaWorld are working at the Oiled Wildlife Care Center with 22 animals. Unfortunately, a total of five sea lions have died as a result of their injuries already.

How Will the Santa Barbara Oil Spill Impact Local Animals?


In total, over two dozen dead and living marine mammals have been found on the coastline, along with about 40 birds. Thirty-eight of the birds found were covered with oil. Eighteen of them were dead while the remaining twenty-five were taken to a rehabilitation facility. The victims of the spill also include about twelve sea lions and six northern elephant seals. Dolphins have also been found dead; the numbers and devastation are likely to increase in the months and even years to come.


Ecosystem Impact

Marine mammals aren’t the only ones impacted by the spill. The Santa Barbara coastline is home to a unique ecosystem, because cold water meets warm water in this area. This is a rare occurrence that results in many unusual species living in the area. There are also over 14,000 acres of kelp forests on the coastline. These forests are home to more than 800 species of animals that include crabs, snails, fish, sea lions and more. Oil sticks to these forests and when the animals that depend on the kelp for food eat it, they also ingest toxic petrochemical compounds from the oil which can be lethal. Some animals are instantly killed by ingesting oil while others suffer from internal injuries or long-term ill health effects. A study on the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, found unusually high rates of miscarriages, lung disease, and immune system defects among the local populations nearly five years after the spill. The long-term effects that this spill will have on the Santa Barbara ecosystem are yet to be seen, but the prognosis is bleak.

How Can You Help?

There are many ways to help out following this oil spill. If you live in the area you can take some direct action by volunteering to help with the ongoing clean up efforts. If that isn’t an option you can do some research and reach out to your government representatives about strengthening regulations for pipelines. You can also donate to local organizations helping with the clean up and rehabbing the animals. Whatever efforts you can be a part of will help make a positive impact for those hurt by the spill, especially the animals.

In-text images: ABC News

Lead image source: Flickr