Inland Waters Receive Protection from Oil Spills

After a train derailment, 50,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Jame River, Lynchburg, Virginia 4/30/2014

After a train derailment, 50,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Jame River, Lynchburg, Virginia 4/30/2014

The California legislature approved the 2014-15 state budget, and with it were provisions for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) regarding inland oil spills – a huge step towards protecting all inland bodies of water like creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes, and wetlands in California from rail, pipeline, and truck spills (for news, click here).

OSPR is responsible for preventing, preparing for, and responding to oil spills. In the recent past, OSPR’s program of prevention and response was limited in scope to oil spills in marine waters, and did not extend inland. There was no dedicated funding for OSPR emergency response to inland oil spills. Since 1991, oil tankers offshore and oil marine terminals on the coast have had to prepare for response to oil spills; but during that same time there has been no similar inland program. Los Angeles Waterkeeper staff and volunteers strongly pushed for this statewide program: creating a petition, engaging other environmental organizations, producing sign-on letters, testifying at budget committee meetings, and working with OSPR staff to ensure that the Best Achievable Protection of ALL waters and natural resources of the state are now enforceable by California regulations in the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Act. There was no sense in the coastal edge of LA County being protected while the rest of Los Angeles’ rivers, creeks, and drinking water reservoirs were not (read new regs in trailer bill here)

The statewide program being implemented July 1st, 2014 is funded by maintaining the current established marine oil fee of $.065 cents per barrel, and also applies it to all oil entering a refinery in the state. This allows important staffing improvements as well as the expansion inland and on-going financial stability of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which is a 30 facility network that OSPR and U.C. Davis co-manage to rapidly respond to and treat wildlife that have been affected by spills.

This is all needed because the U.S. is on the cusp of dramatic changes in how oil is transported. In 2012, about 70% of oil imported by California refineries came through marine terminals; only 1 million barrels or 0.3% came by rail. In 2013, crude oil imports by rail jumped 506% to 6.3 million barrels, or about 1% of total imports. Many experts, including the California Energy Commission, project that this number could increase by up to 150 million barrels, or 25% of total imports, by 2016. We have already seen some disastrous rail crashes, from 40 people dead in Lac-Megantic, Canada, to an oil spill in Alabama wetlands, to a river on fire in Virginia, and more (for more info on crude-by-rail threats, download recent report by California Interagency Rail Safety Work Group.

Crude by rail is an expanding threat, but not the only threat. Spills also happen throughout the life cycle of oil – pipelines, production, trucks, and storage facilities, to name a few. In California, there are more than 7,000 rail crossings over waterways and more than 5,000 pipeline crossings. All it takes is one spill to cause irreversible losses to California’s natural resources and environment and jeopardize public health.

On May 15th, 2014 Los Angeles narrowly escaped an oil pipeline spill of 15,100 gallons in Atwater Village located close to the LA River. There was no contingency plan for this section of pipeline, and the spill was thankfully prevented from reaching the river by quick thinking fire fighters that used dirt from a nearby concrete plant to create berms that contained the oil. We got lucky. We should not have to rely on luck; we’ve needed this OSPR expansion to facilitate efficient and effective responses to oil spills that help protect our waterways from the potentially disastrous effects of such spills.

This affects Los Angeles, where local refineries are implementing changes to receive crude-by-rail. Over two months ago, LA got a break when Valero withdrew its South Coast Air Quality Management District permit application to build a rail terminal at its refinery in Wilmington. Los Angeles Waterkeeper is working to prevent oil spills, which sometimes means preventing the implementation of hazardous projects. Because our civilization still depends on large amounts of oil and gas, we also represent environmental interests in preparedness and response planning, being active members on the Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Committee and California Department of Fish and Wildlife OSPR Technical Advisory Committee.
Los Angeles is large and diverse, and the people and habitats deserve a comprehensive oil spill program. Thank you to OSPR staff for responding to this great need, and the legislators that voted for this critical protection (vote tracking here)

– Brian Meux, Marine Programs Manager

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