The Santa Barbara Refugio Oil Spill last month highlighted the importance of keeping a close eye on business and government to avert further environmental destruction. When Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency in response to the spill, a loophole suspended the California Coastal Act, making cleanup efforts less stringent and specific. A group of 39 environmental organizations, including Save The Bay, successfully pressured the governor to restore regulatory power and ensure a more effective cleanup.
In the midst of environmental crisis, immediate and effective disaster response is key. Over 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean, poisoning marine mammals, birds and fish. Both Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach were closed due to the dangerous conditions posed by the spill. Additionally, over 138 square miles of ocean were closed to commercial fishing.
Brown recognized the need for emergency action, but the governor’s attempt to “cut red tape” suspended the California Coastal Act, the primary law that governs the standards for development within the Coastal Zone. Suspending the Coastal Act compromised the Coastal Commission’s ability to ensure that Plains All American Pipeline, the company that owns the pipeline that ruptured, is held responsible for the cleanup and restoration of environmentally sensitive habitat areas (“ESHA”), wetlands, and marine resources.
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network explains, “It makes no sense to suspend the very law that was created by a citizen initiative, in response to the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, to address situations like this. If anything, this is the time to make certain the Coastal Act’s protective policies are administered and enforced.”
Save The Bay joined 38 other environmental organizations in writing a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, asking him to rescind suspension of Chapter 7 of the Coastal Act, which deals with coastal development stating that “the scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas shall be considered and protected as a resource of public importance”. The letter expressed deep concern about the Santa Barbara Refugio Oil Spill and the long-term impacts on California coastal environments and communities. The coastal damage that has already occurred as a result of the spill is unacceptable, and the spill was caused, in part, due to weakened regulatory oversight that resulted in a delayed shut down of the pipeline.
In response, Governor Brown reversed his order, reinstating the Coastal Act and putting regulatory standards back under the control of the California Coastal Commission. This is a huge victory for the environmental community, as the Coastal Commission is best equipped to manage the process of cleanup and restoration and will ensure that the task is undertaken with environmental sensitivity.
Brown’s decision to lift the suspension of the Coastal Act is a reminder that environmental organizations like Save The Bay must stay vigilant and act as watchdogs on important policy issues to protect our precious natural resources.