Why one researcher calls Refugio spill response ‘outdated’

What has changed in spill response technology in the past decades?

According to Sean Anderson, an environmental researcher at California State University-Channel Islands, not a lot. He’s spent years studying oil spills, from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Refugio Oil Spill, here in his backyard.

KCRW spoke with Anderson on the one year anniversary of the Refugio Oil Spill.

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Sean Anderson, an environmental researcher at California State University-Channel Islands

How did this response compare to other oil spill responses?

We have to remember that the Refugio Spill was very small. It was 2 percent of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was also a few percent of what Deepwater Horizon was like.

What did you see when the Deepwater Horizon happened? What did you see when the Refugio Oil Spill happened? It’s essentially the same technology that we’ve been using for the last 50 years. We’ve made incredible strides in terms of extracting oil. It’s more sophisticated than some of our stuff going to Mars. We’re drilling into rock miles below the bottom of the ocean, which itself might be a mile underneath the water. These guys are piloting drills with incredible precision and awesome technology. We have not done anything close to that in terms of our response to oil spills and our clean up technology.

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Clean up crews the day after the Refugio Oil Spill. Photo: Saul Gonzalez


What is the standardized approach for getting that oil out of the water?

If you look at the pictures from 1969, you saw people throwing straw on the beach. The straw sucks up the oil, then they go scrape up the straw and take it to a landfill. That’s exactly what we were doing in this oil spill. During the Deepwater Horizon people were taking human hair, putting it in nylons and throwing that on the beach. That suggests maybe we haven’t gotten super sophisticated with our cleanup technologies.

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Cleaning up oil with hay during the 1969 spill in Santa Barbara. Photo: Santa Barbara Historical Society

There have been some improvements. For example, we have Clean Seas now. Clean Seas is an entity that is funded by the oil and gas industry along all of our coasts —  in Alaska, Oregon, Louisiana, California — a bunch of pre-staged equipment: boats, booms, things of that nature. That is great, but what are they doing? They’re basically going out and putting out floating sausages, so hopefully if the water is super calm they’ll be able to contain the oil and then suck it up with a vacuum.But if it’s at all choppy or windy, the booms don’t really work.

There are folks that are working on things. For example, biodegradable dispersants — dispersants that are created from organic sources that would break down into something non-toxic — people are definitely working on that. It’s not as if people have done absolutely nothing, but compared to sophistication in extraction, the sophistication in our response to clean up is pathetic.

KCRW wants to answer your questions about the oil spill

One year later, are there things you want to know about the oil spill? Ask your questions here. We’ll investigate.