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Platform Holly spills oil, leaks gas
Double Trouble

April 30, 1999

Accident-plagued Venoco battled double trouble Thursday as a barrel of crude oil spilled into the ocean, followed by a 25-minute gas leak from its much-maligned Platform Holly.

A barrel of crude -- about 40 gallons -- likely overflowed from a platform tank, entering the ocean about 11:45 a.m., county officials said. Moments later, about 5,500 cubic feet of gas, including seven pounds of deadly hydrogen sulfide, leaked from the platform, which is about 2 miles off the Goleta shoreline.

Because of at least 5-foot swells and 20 mph gusts, the crude oil moved to the southeast and posed little risk to the fragile shoreline. But at least five odor complaints -- from Hope Ranch, Miramonte Drive and near City College -- were reported from the gas release, said Peter Cantle, general source division manager for the county Air Pollution Control District.

The accident triggers the county's far-reaching, first-ever operations order approved earlier this month against Venoco. The action forces the immediate and indefinite shutdown of the problem platform and the firm's Ellwood processing facility. And a visit by a barge to transport barrels of oil produced at the platform has been canceled today, said Amy Sabbadini, a planner with the county Energy Division.

A county committee will review the company's incident report indicating the reason for the release. The committee has "to feel safe" before operations can restart, Sabbadini said.

"We're not going to take any chances," she said.

"We want an explanation of what happened," Cantle said. "We're going to scrutinize the explanation and the solution for a fix."

The company had not determined the cause of the oil spill or the gas release as of early Thursday evening, said Mike Edwards, vice president of land for Venoco. The Santa Barbara-based company has endured many gas leaks since a July 27 incident prompted investigations, leading to much stricter operating and reporting procedures.

Company employees collected about 25 gallons of crude with booms -- basically floating sponges -- while Clean Seas crews arrived about 90 minutes later. Workers on that specially equipped cleanup craft determined the remaining oil could not be recovered. The crude mixed with the naturally occurring offshore oil seeps, making recovery unlikely.

"We found a slight sheen and it was difficult to determine the oil from the spill and the oil from the natural seeps," said Clean Seas general manager Darryle Waldron, who dispatched three ships to the spill.

No wildlife appeared affected by the crude spill, which took about 10 minutes to stop, Edwards said.

"Any release into the ocean is important and needs to be contained," Cantle said. "But it could have been much worse."

The oil spilled Thursday was much less than the most recent platform spill in the Santa Barbara Channel. About 150 barrels of crude entered the ocean from Exxon's Platform Heritage on May 1, 1996, said U.S. Minerals Management Service spokesman John Romero. And the federal agency estimates 163 barrels of crude from Torch's Platform Irene pipeline leaked on Sept. 28, 1997, offshore of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Venoco's accident is "a small spill that's easily containable" said industry spokesman Frank Holmes, coastal coordinator for Western States Petroleum Association in Santa Barbara.

But the 25-minute gas leak is the longest-lasting release at the platform by Venoco. Still, the amount of gas and hydrogen sulfide leaked is lower than what was released on March 13, the biggest release of the past nine months.

A county-mandated order to bring hydrogen sulfide through a 4-inch line to an incinerator at the Ellwood plant would not have handled the gas release Thursday. The county has demanded the interim measure until a much-needed flare is installed on the platform by the end of the year. The gas-burning flare would have eliminated the release, Cantle said.

Regardless, "in all operations you're going to have things crack, break or overflow," Holmes said.

Perhaps, but Venoco's seemingly endless and health-threatening incidents are troubling, environmentalists and nearby residents said.

"Can this facility be operated safely?" asked Greg Helms, community affairs director for the Environmental Defense Center. "Do they even have the intentions or expertise to even operate it? How many strikes do you get?"

County air pollution and energy leaders will ask the same questions before giving the nod to restart the operation, officials warn.