Is it easier to clean up soil spills than ocean spills?

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Last year, 140,000 gallons of crude oil spilled along a pristine coastline west of Santa Barbara. A corroded pipeline burst, releasing crude oil into a creek that empties into the ocean at Refugio State Beach.

KCRW held a live panel discussion about what happened during the spill and the cleanup. We asked you what questions you had about oil production and transportation and took them to the panel.

Pipelines will leak. Wouldn’t it be better to have oil spill soak into the soil rather than drain into the sea?

David Valentine, Professor of Earth Science and Biology at UCSB, says it is better to have soil spills than ocean spills:

“In general, spills to soil are more contained than spills to water, and thus cleanup is more straightforward. Damage is often lesser for soil spills. For this reason an aquatic spill (including marine) tends to be more harmful than a spill to soil.”

Linda Krop, Chief Counsel at the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) in Santa Barbara, California, agrees. “Spills in soils cause less damage and are easier to clean up effectively.” She adds that pipelines are unlike other modes of oil transportation because they can have safety features that make large leaks preventable:

“If pipelines are equipped with leak detection systems, shutoff valves, and automatic shutdown systems, they should shut down immediately, and before very much oil spills. Other pipelines in Santa Barbara County have this type of equipment. Had the Plains pipeline shut down automatically as soon as the leak occurred, a very small amount of oil would have spilled and it would not have reached the ocean. Accordingly, it is critical that oil pipelines be designed and equipped with the best available technology (as currently required by AB 864, which passed in the aftermath of the oil spill). If pipelines are constructed and operated appropriately, there is more likelihood that the spill will occur in soil rather than water.”

The Crimson Pipeline oil spill in Ventura that occurred on June 23rd is a recent spill on soil. About 30,000 gallons of oil spilled throughout Ventura after maintenance was performed on the line the day before. The spill was contained swiftly by fire crews, and no oil reached the ocean.