GOLETA, Calif. — More than 6,000 gallons of oil have been raked, skimmed and vacuumed from a spill stretching across nine miles of California coast in a cleanup effort being carried out 24 hours a day, officials said on Thursday, but that is just some of the sticky, stinking sludge that escaped from a broken pipeline.
Investigators have found that up to 105,000 gallons may have leaked from the broken pipeline, and up to a fifth of that — 21,000 gallons — reached the sea, according to estimates.
Federal regulators were investigating the leak as workers in protective suits raked and shoveled black matter off the beaches, and as boats towed booms to corral the two slicks off the Santa Barbara coast.
The leak occurred in a pipe that was carrying crude from a large offshore rig toward refineries. The oil spilled into a culvert running under a highway and into a storm drain that emptied into the ocean.
The chief executive of the company that runs the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline, apologized for the spill
Mr. Armstrong said that the company had received permission to continue the cleanup effort around the clock and vowed that workers “will remain here until everything has been restored to normal.”
Crude was flowing through the pipe at 54,600 gallons an hour at the time of the leak, the company said. Company officials did not say how long it leaked for before the spill was discovered and the pipeline shut down, or discuss the rate at which oil escaped.
Federal regulators from the Department of Transportation, which oversees oil pipeline safety, were investigating the leak, the pipe’s condition and whether there had been any regulatory violations.
The 24-inch pipe, built in 1991, had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to Plains. The pipe underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, though the results had not been analyzed yet.
There was no estimate on the cost of the cleanup or how long it would take.
A combination of soiled beaches and pungent stench of petroleum caused state parks officials to close Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach, both popular campgrounds west of Santa Barbara, for the Memorial Day weekend.
Still, tourists were drawn to pull off the Pacific Coast Highway to observe the spill from overlooking bluffs.
“It smells like what they use to pave the roads,” said Fan Yang of Indianapolis, who was hoping to find cleaner beaches in Santa Barbara, about 20 miles away. “I’m sad for the birds — if they lose their habitat.”
Biologists were seen counting dead fish and crustaceans along sandy beaches and rocky shores.
The State Department of Fish and Wildlife banned fishing and shellfish harvesting for a mile east and west of Refugio beach, and it deployed booms to protect the nesting and foraging habitat of the snowy plover and the least tern, both endangered shore birds.
The coastal area is a habitat for seals, sea lions and whales, which are now migrating north through the area.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday declared a state of emergency because of the spill, a move that frees up additional state funding and resources to help in the cleanup effort.
The coastline was the scene of a much larger spill in 1969 — the biggest in American waters at the time — that is credited with giving rise to the American environmental movement.
Environmental groups used the spill as a new opportunity to criticize the use of fossil fuels and remind people of the area’s notoriety for oil spills.