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Coast Guard defends cleanup response to California oil spill

FILE - In this May 20, 2015, file photo, workers monitor the site of an underground oil pipe break up a hill from Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif. The pipe, owned by Plains All American Pipeline, spewed oil down a culvert and into the Pacific on May 19 before it was shut off. Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say the response to the oil spill that blackened beaches and created a 10-square-mile slick on the ocean was "insufficient." and called on federal regulators to provide more details on the activities and decisions by Plains. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The leader overseeing a massive oil cleanup along the California coast defended the initial response, saying there were workers on the ground after the spill that stained popular beaches.

The first wave of workers deployed booms in the water to corral the oil slick and placed them along the shoreline to protect ecologically sensitive habitats. Others vacuumed up oil from the site of the underground pipeline that ruptured on May 19, sending up to 101,000 gallons of crude oil down a culvert and onto the beach north of Santa Barbara. An estimated 21,000 gallons escaped into the Pacific and quickly spread.

As more crews arrived the next day, they began raking oily sand and cleaning rocks on the beach — an exercise that continues more than a week after one of the largest coastal oil spills in California in 25 years.

“We had people on the ground on day zero — people who were actually physically doing things to prevent the worsening of the spill,” Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams said Friday.

The early response has come under scrutiny in recent days by environmentalists and witnesses who felt little on-the-ground cleanup was done on the first day.

California’s U.S. senators issued a statement Thursday calling the response insufficient and demanding Plains All American Pipeline explain what it did, and when, after firefighters discovered the leak from the company’s underground 24-inch pipe.

A diverse range of government agencies, from the Coast Guard to state emergency workers to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, converged on the site after the spill was discovered, but it took some time to get ramped up.

As responders assembled, graduate student Natalie Phares quickly organized a volunteer bucket brigade. Seven hours after the discovery of the spill, she was surprised to find her small crew alone on the sand a half-mile east of Refugio State Beach, where the spill occurred.

Aside from a couple of boats skimming oil from the surface, she didn’t see any other cleanup effort.

“It was disheartening,” she said. Using headlamps, the 10 volunteers filled 91 buckets in 3

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