4 Indelible Images From the Refugio Oil Spill

Refugio oil spill
Oil flows toward the ocean from a ruptured pipeline near Refugio State Beach on May 20, 2015. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Oil spills often occur in remote places, like the Gulf of Mexico or Montana's badlands, which can keep them out of sight and out of mind for many people. But when an oil pipeline ruptured this week near Santa Barbara, California — spilling up to 105,000 gallons of crude in a county with more than 435,000 residents — lots of concerned citizens swept in to survey the damage.

The spill began sometime around 11 a.m. on May 19, when an underground oil pipe began spewing crude near Refugio State Beach. The line's owner, Plains All-American Pipeline, says up to 105,000 gallons may have escaped into and onto the surrounding ground. About 20 percent of that ended up in the ocean, forming two oil slicks that stretch across a combined 9 miles, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Oil quickly coated seabirds, fish, crustaceans and other wildlife, in some cases fatally.

The cause of the spill is still under investigation, but for now the main focus is on cleanup. Volunteers have flocked to some oiled beaches, and some have even personally rescued pelicans. Local authorities are warning people to avoid the spill for health reasons — oil contains a cocktail of toxins, including known carcinogens like benzene — but some are still defiantly cleaning it up anyway.

Many people are also just trying to capture the mess on camera, which is no less important of a public service. Efforts to save oiled wildlife are noble, but photos and videos provide a permanent, relatable record of what happened — and an indelible reminder of the risks that always come with oil.

On top of its recent onshore oil booms, the U.S. is also looking to extract more offshore oil in coming decades, from the Gulf of Mexico and mid-Atlantic to even riskier places like the Arctic. And 2.6 million miles of pipelines already carry oil and other hazardous materials through the country, as do a growing number of trains. A spill like this could thus have hit almost anywhere, but its proximity to Santa Barbara gives it extra significance. The city also suffered a much larger spill in 1969, when 3 million gallons of oil seeped from an offshore platform, killing huge numbers of wildlife. That spill helped spark the modern environmental movement, largely due to iconic photos that gave the disaster a face.

So, in the spirit of Santa Barbara's unfortunately rich history of oil spills, here are some of the most evocative images taken (so far) of the area's latest crude awakening:

crab in Refugio oil spill
An oil-covered crab is stopped dead in its tracks after being caught in the 2015 Refugio oil spill. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
oil-covered lobster from the Refugio oil spill
An oiled lobster lies dead on the sand near Refugio State Beach. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
Refugio oil spill
Globs of oil shimmer eerily on rocks near Refugio State Beach on May 20, 2015. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)