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Working around the clock, cleanup crews spent a third day Thursday sopping up gobs of sticky, pungent oil along 9 miles of California coast, and investigators began excavating a ruptured 24-inch pipeline to figure out why it broke.

Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams said 7,700 gallons of “oily water mixture” had been removed — a small fraction of the 105,000 gallons of oil that may have emptied before the spill was stopped.

She said the oil that had leaked into the Pacific Ocean was dissipating and spreading out, complicating the cleanup.

On land, crews began digging to excavate the pipeline, dumping contaminated soil into bins as they went. The excavation job was about a quarter complete, said Rick McMichael, a senior director at Plains All American, which operates the pipe.

Five oil-coated brown pelicans were taken to a wildlife care facility to gain strength before they can be cleaned, said Mark Crossland, an official with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said dead lobster and kelp bass had been discovered.

PHOTOS: What the Oil Spill Looks Like Up Close

The spill on Tuesday, traced to an onshore section of the pipeline, fouled a stretch of ocean and scenic coast just north of Santa Barbara populated by whales, dolphins, sea birds and other animals.

Campers were evacuated from two state beaches for the Memorial Day holiday, and the state closed fishing and shellfish harvesting for a mile. A county official said it was a “worst-nightmare scenario.”

Company officials found themselves fielding questions about a reportedly dismal safety record. The Los Angeles Times, citing federal records, reported Thursday that Plains has piled up 175 safety and maintenance violations since 2006, more than three times the national average per mile of pipe.

Patrick Hodgins, a company official, declined to comment on the figures, but he said the company was always trying to improve: “Safety is not just a priority, it’s actually a core value at Plains.”

The cleanup effort on Thursday grew to more than 300 workers, deployed on beaches and in boats. Williams, from the Coast Guard, asked for patience. “Cleanup doesn’t occur overnight,” she said. “It’s a long process.”

As much as 4 million gallons of oil spilled along the same stretch of coastline in 1969. That spill, the biggest in American history at the time, helped give rise to the environmental movement.

IN-DEPTH

— Erin McClam