Southern California beaches, marshland under threat after massive oil spill

Officials investigating one of California’s largest oil spills are looking into whether a ship’s anchor may have struck a pipeline on the ocean floor, causing the massive leak of crude, authorities said Tuesday.

The head of the company that operates the pipeline said divers have examined more than 2,430 metres of pipe and are focusing on “one area of significant interest.”

An anchor striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher told a news conference.

Coast Guard officials said cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area.

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” said Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye.

PHOTOS | Witness cleanup efforts underway after Southern California oil spill: 

About the pipeline operator

Houston-based Amplify Energy operates three oil platforms about 14 kilometres off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to be coming from a rupture in that pipeline about 6.5 kilometres from the platform.

Over the years, Amplify has been cited 72 times for safety and environmental violations that were severe enough that drilling had to be curtailed or stopped to fix the problem, regulatory records show.

In all, the Amplify subsidiary known as Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each infraction.

WATCH | Nearby marshland, home to dozens of bird species, affected: 

Massive oil spill washes up on California shores

The equivalent of nearly 3,000 barrels of oil washed up on the California coast south of Los Angeles. 1:40

Fears for wildlife

The leak sent an estimated 572,800 litres of heavy crude into the ocean waters, fouling the sands of Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.

Environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.

“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said at a news conference Monday.

A fish swims under oil slicks in the Talbert Channel after the oil spill came ashore in Huntington Beach, Calif. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.

White House working with local officials

The Biden administration was working with state and local partners to contain the spill, assess the effects and “address potential causes,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki

Some residents, business owners and environmentalists questioned whether authorities reacted quickly enough to contain the spill. People who live and work in the area said they noticed an oil sheen and a heavy petroleum smell Friday evening.

Booms were deployed on the ocean surface Sunday to try to contain the oil while divers sought to determine where and why the leak occurred. On land, there was a race to find animals harmed by the oil and to keep the spill from harming any more sensitive marshland.

Cleanup contractors deployed skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

But it was not until Saturday afternoon that the Coast Guard said an oil slick had been spotted and a unified command established to respond. And it took until Saturday night for the company to shut down the pipeline.

Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter, said on Friday evening “people were emailing, and the neighbours were asking, ‘Do you smell that?'” By Saturday morning, boats were returning to the marina with their hulls covered in oil, he said.

Democratic congressman from California reacts:

Some of the oil washed up on the shores of Orange County. The city and state beaches at Huntington Beach were closed, and late Sunday the city of Laguna Beach, just to the south, said its beaches also were closed.

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the beaches of the community nicknamed Surf City could remain closed for weeks or even months. The oil created a kilometres-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky black globules.

“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Carr said.

Pipeline shut down

Willsher, the CEO of Amplify, said the pipeline and the company’s three platforms were shut down Saturday night. The 28.16-kilometre pipeline that is 24 to 30 metres below the surface was suctioned out so no more oil would spill while the location of the leak was being investigated.

Crews led by the Coast Guard-deployed skimmers laid some 1,130 metres of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 10-hectare wetland, officials said.

A surfer floats next to oil slicks on the water near the shoreline of Huntington Beach on Sunday. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 1.6 million litres of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.

In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent some 541,300 litres of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.

The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales.

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