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History of California Oil Spills

Energy companies have a long and tumultuous history of offshore drilling in California and elsewhere in the United States. The damage from these spills is often long-lasting and catastrophic. On October 2, 2021, an Amplify Energy pipeline, running between an offshore rig and the coast of Long Beach, was dragged by the anchor of a cargo ship, spilling 144,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County.

Several Orange County oil spill lawsuits resulting from the incident are currently underway, and there are various industries affected by the Orange County oil spill, which could all face drastic long-term consequences.

But what are the largest oil spills in California state history? Which California oil spills had the greatest impact on the economy?

Below, we’ll examine some of the largest oil spills in the history of California, in terms of their size, cost, and overall impact on public health and safety.

Find more information on our Orange County oil spill official resources page.

Environmental Impact of Oil Spills

What are the long-term effects of California oil spills on public health and the environment?

Experts say that the long-term impacts of the Orange County oil spill on the environment could be significant. birds and marine life could become ill even if they aren’t saturated by oil, and this area is uniquely delicate.

As Audubon California executive director Sarah Rose said in an October 3 press release, the spill “occurred in an especially sensitive area at a critical time, as many bird species head south for the winter.”

The Talbert Marsh — which took on gallons of oil from the spill — is home to about 90 unique species of birds.

Adult fish can experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, changes to heart and respiration rates, and reproduction impairment, according to the National Ocean Service. Oil is highly toxic and can make fish and seafood throughout the region harmful for humans to consume.

As Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said in a press release issued October 2, “The ramifications will extend further than the visible oil and odor that our residents are dealing with at the moment. The impact to the environment is irreversible.” Beaches remained closed for nearly a week as cleanup and wildlife rescue efforts were underway.

After the Orange County oil spill, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife placed a temporary ban on commercial and recreational fishing along a 20-mile stretch of coastline extending six miles out to sea.

Read more about the environmental and economic effects of California oil spills below.

Timeline of Largest Oil Spills in California History

Here is a list of previous major oil spills in California:

Union Oil (Unocal) Oil Spill, Santa Barbara — 1969

The largest oil spill in California history took place in 1969, off the coast of Santa Barbara, when a blowout occurred as a result of negligence and inadequate safety measures taken by Unocal (then called Union Oil). 

As much as 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean over a 10-day period after the Union Oil rig blowout, which killed thousands of birds, fish, and other wildlife, creating a 35-mile-long oil slick along the California coast. At the time that it occurred, it was the largest oil spill in United States history.

The 4.2 million gallon oil spill is said to be the inspiration for the modern environmental movement, and the annual Earth Day holiday, celebrated each year since 1970.

The Santa Barbara oil spill is still the third-largest in U.S. history, after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Standard Oil Company Oil Spill, San Francisco Bay — 1971

More than 800,000 gallons of oil spilled into San Francisco Bay in 1971, when two Standard Oil Company tankers collided, leading to a devastating impact on the environment, specifically local species of birds. It remains the largest oil spill in Bay Area history.

It was estimated that more than 7,000 birds were oiled in the 1971 Bay Area oil spill — about 1,600 were brought in to be treated, and of those, only 200 survived. This led to the creation of the International Bird Rescue, a nonprofit that specializes in rehabilitating aquatic birds affected by oil spills.  

American Trader Oil Spill, Huntington Beach — 1990

In 1990, an American Trader oil tanker spilled 416,000 gallons of oil off Huntington Beach, in the same area that was devastated by the recent Orange County oil spill.

An estimated 3,400 birds were killed in the 1990 Huntington Beach oil spill, and the spill’s harmful effects on marine life lasted for years.

In the wake of the recent Orange County Oil Spill, Audubon California executive director Sarah Rose said in a statement, “This spill  — in virtually the same spot as a devastating 1990 spill — is a reminder that petroleum and water are a dangerous mix along California’s precious coast.” 

She added, “Continued reliance on oil kills birds and other wildlife, threatens our public health and harms local economics and recreational opportunities.”

The 1990 Huntington Beach oil spill could provide a roadmap for recent Orange County oil spill lawsuits, as the long-term effects will be similar to what occurred 31 years ago.

Cosco Busan Oil Spill, San Francisco Bay — 2007

The 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill between San Francisco and Oakland spilled 58,000 gallons of “bunker fuel” oil into San Francisco Bay after a container ship operated by Fleet Management Limited struck the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in the fog.

The maritime pilot who was operating the container ship, John Cota, was determined to be impaired on prescription drugs at the time of the incident. Cota was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that there were several causes for the crash, including the pilot’s impaired state, ineffective oversight, and the failure of Fleet Management to train Cosco Busan crew members in proper safety management procedures.

Refugio Oil Spill, Santa Barbara — 2015

The 2015 Refugio oil spill occurred after a corroded crude oil pipeline operated by Plains All American Pipeline broke off the coast of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, causing 100,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean.

The 2015 Santa Barbara oil spill turned beaches black and had drastic effects on tourism, fishing, and wildlife. It was the worst oil spill in California for over 25 years.

In the wake of the Refugio Oil Spill, Plains All American Pipeline agreed to a more than $60 million settlement for the damages it caused. The company also agreed to modify operations to prevent further spills.

The damages included $24 million in penalties, $22 million in natural resource damages, $10 million for assessment costs, and $4 million dollars to the U.S. Coast Guard for cleanup costs.

Oil Spill Mass Tort Attorneys

If your livelihood business or your health has been negatively affected by the Orange County oil spill, an expert Orange County oil spill lawyer is vital to getting you all the compensation you deserve. The skilled toxic environmental mass tort attorneys at Singleton Schreiber will fight for you until you receive all the compensation you deserve.

Request a free consultation today to go over your oil spill claim.

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