Local environmental and government agencies have recently received word that federal regulators have cut inspections of oil platforms off the California coast from several times a week to once a month.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS), which inspects offshore oil and gas operations in the Outer Continental Shelf, cut the inspections last November, but local agencies have only recently been notified of the change. This move has outraged environmentalists, who say the cuts endanger the shoreline and workers.

“We’re extremely concerned about the cutbacks and the way it was handled,” Linda Krop, executive director of the Environmental Defense Center, said. “I’ve been out there with inspectors when they were going out every few days. The inspectors would know the workers and operations really well.”

Prior to the cutbacks, the 23 oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel were inspected weekly with additional unannounced inspections monthly. Since the cutbacks, inspection occurs only once per month with unannounced inspections once every three months.

MMS spokesman John Romero said federal law requires only one comprehensive annual inspection for oil platforms, plus “periodic inspections without advance notice.”

“We are still doing above and beyond what the law is calling for,” Romero said.

In response to the cutbacks, Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-23rd District) sent a letter to Johnnie Burton, director of the MMS, in an effort to reinstate the offshore inspection program and ensure the offshore activities of oil and gas operators are inspected on a continuing basis.

“Any effort to undermine safety and enforcement standards would be economically shortsighted and environmentally disastrous,” Capps said in her letter. “Offshore oil and gas development poses significant risks to California’s coast including: increased air pollution; conflicts with fishing, tourism and other coastal industries; and spills and leaks that destroy our shores and create public health hazards. MMS’ monitoring of facilities and operations related to OCS development is critical to ensure the environmental and economic integrity of the Central Coast.”

Last month, the Bush administration dropped its challenge of a court decision halting additional oil and natural gas exploration off the coast of California. Romero said the cut in inspections was made because MMS is restructuring as a result of the decision.

Krop said the former inspection schedule was, for the most part, satisfactory.

“It was an ongoing approach and the inspection really does enhance safety,” Krop said. “It used to be that if something went wrong on a Tuesday, we knew someone would be there to check it out by Saturday. Another concern we have is the weather, since it is generally pretty foggy out there. If the helicopter can’t make it due to the weather, we don’t know how the long the inspection will get delayed.”

In her letter to Burton, Capps cites historic examples of oil mishaps that could have been prevented by increased inspection.

“Authorities repeatedly cited Venoco for releases of deadly hydrogen sulfide at its Goleta platform in 1998 and 1999,” Capps said. “In 1997, a rupture in Torch Oil’s pipeline spilled 21,000 gallons of oil, damaging a rich ocean fishing ground and killing wildlife at the mouth of the Santa Ynez River. And in 1992, Chevron USA pleaded guilty to 65 violations of the Clean Water Act for illegal discharges from a platform off the California coast.”