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Pipeline spills oil off California

A broken pipeline has spilled 21,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating a slick stretching about four miles along the central California coastline.

Authorities responding to reports of a foul smell near Refugio State Beach found a half-mile slick already formed in the ocean, Santa Barbara County fire department said.

Staff traced the oil to the onshore pipeline that spilled into a culvert running under the US 101 freeway and into a storm drain that empties into the ocean.

The pipeline was shut off about three hours later but by then the slick stretched four miles long and 50 yards into the water.

The 24in pipeline is owned by Plains All American Pipeline, which said it shut down the flow of oil and the culvert carrying the oil to the ocean was blocked.

"Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact," the company said in a statement.

The coastguard, county emergency officials and state parks officials are cleaning up the spill.

Boats from the non-profit collective Clean Seas are providing help but are having trouble because so much of the oil is so close to the shore, coastguard spokeswoman Jennifer Williams said.

The accident occurred on the same stretch of coastline as a 1969 spill that at the time was the largest ever in US waters and is credited for giving rise to the American environmental movement.

Several hundred thousand gallons spilled from a blowout on an oil platform and thousands of sea birds were killed along with many marine mammals. It was later surpassed by 1989's Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska and the 2010 Gulf oil spill off Louisiana.

The stretch of coastline about 20 miles north-west of the wealthy area of Santa Barbara is home to offshore oil rigs and small amounts of tar and seepage regularly show up on beaches.

The spill is largest in years and the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defence Centre said to have it occur in "a sensitive and treasured environment is devastating to watch". The group expressed special worry for the many species of whale that migrate through the area.

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