- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) - The last of several Southern California beaches soiled by last spring’s massive oil spill reopened Friday to enthusiastic crowds that quickly jammed its campgrounds to capacity.

Refugio State Beach opened to day visitors at 8 a.m. and began letting overnight campers in at noon, said Eric Hjelstrom, the beach’s section superintendent. By early afternoon, its 60 camping spaces were taken.

“Judging from the reaction, the cleanup was a huge success because they’re all out there having fun,” Hjelstrom said by phone from the beach. “We’re full of happy campers.”

Friday was a perfect day to reopen, he said, with blue, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s.

Two small sections of the beach remain closed for further cleanup. But they are away from most of the area’s popular activities, which include swimming, surfing, sunbathing and basketball. It could be another two months before they reopen, Hjelstrom said.

Refugio, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara, was one of several area beaches closed after a pipeline ruptured May 19, spilling 101,000 gallons of crude, including 21,000 gallons that reached the Pacific Ocean.

As of last month, cleanup costs had climbed to $92 million.

On Thursday, government officials overseeing the cleanup pegged the work at 98 percent complete, based on assessments of dozens of sites along the shoreline. About 300 workers remain on the job, mostly focused on an area near the site where oil flowed into the ocean through a storm drain culvert.

In late June, state officials allowed fishing to resume across 138 square miles of water off the Santa Barbara coast that had been off limits.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is investigating the cause of the spill, and state prosecutors have been considering potential charges against operator Plains All American Pipeline. A congressional committee is also investigating.

The Houston-based company has faced criticism for how long it took to relay information to the federal government after the break.

Wildlife officials reported that nearly 200 birds and more than 100 marine mammals were found dead in the spill area. However, investigators have not determined whether the spill played any role in those deaths.

Mark Crossland of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said the cleanup marked the first phase of the agency’s work.

“When the cleanup is finished, restoration begins, which is critical for the environment and the community. We will be here until that restoration is complete,” Crossland said in a statement.

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