One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches that could end up closed for months as crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.
Divers were trying to determine where and why the leak occurred, but the flow of oil was stopped late Saturday from the pipeline that runs under the ocean off Huntington Beach, according to the head of the company that operates the line.
At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of crude spilled into the waters off Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday when boaters began reporting a sheen in the water, officials said.
“I don’t expect it to be more. That’s the capacity of the entire pipeline,” said Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher. He said the pipeline was suctioned out and dozens of nearby oil platforms operated by Amplify were shut down.
It was one of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history, fouling the strand in Huntington Beach, the town known as Surf City USA. Crews scrambled to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the city’s famous beaches could remain closed for weeks or even months.
“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. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”
The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules.
@HB_Surf_City in partnership with county will order beaches and water closed from HB Pier to River Jetty
-Please avoid swimming, surfing, or exercising on beach today.
-It’s not safe to fish off the piers, bridges or jetties. Please avoid.
-protect your animals from oil pic.twitter.com/Cbkyv1BGo8
— Supervisor Katrina Foley (@SupervisorFoley) October 3, 2021
Some birds and fish were caught in the muck and killed, said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley. But the U.S. Coast Guard said there was a report of just one ruddy duck that was covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Crews led by the Coast Guard deployed skimmers and some 3,700 feet (1,128 meters) of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre (10-hectare) wetland in Huntington Beach, officials said.
A petroleum stench permeated the air throughout the area.
“You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Foley said.
The oil will likely continue to approach the Orange County coast, including Newport Beach to the south, over the next few days, officials said.
The closure included all of Huntington Beach, from the city’s north edge about 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty. The shutdown came amid summerlike weather that would have brought big crowds to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away.
Officials canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Air Show that typically draws tens of thousands of spectators to Huntington Beach, a city of about 199,000 residents about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of downtown Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
The oil slick originated from a pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, Foley said on Twitter. Elly is connected by walkway to another platform, Ellen, located just over 8.5 miles (about 14 kilometers) off Long Beach, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Foley said Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery told her that he encountered the oil slick while in a boat traveling back to the mainland from Santa Catalina Island. “He saw dolphins swimming thru the oil,” Foley tweeted.
Huntington Beach resident David Rapchun said he’s worried about the impact of the spill on the beaches where he grew up as well as the local economy.
“For the amount of oil these things produce I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Rapchun said. “I’m sure they have long leases but push come to shove these things can change.”
He questioned whether drilling for oil was a wise idea along some of Southern California’s most scenic beaches, noting the loss of the final day of the air show could deal a blow to the local economy.
“We need oil, but there’s always a question: Do we need it there?” he wondered.
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 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.
At a news conference Saturday night, Orange County officials expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped crews could stop the oil before it flowed into sensitive wetlands.
“We’ve been working with our federal, state and county partners to mitigate the impact that could be a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said.
The area is home to threatened and endangered species — including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales — a fishing industry and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
“The coastal areas off of Southern California are just really rich for wildlife, a key biodiversity hot spot,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.
The effects of an oil spill are wide-ranging, environmentalists said. Birds that get oil on their feathers can’t fly, can’t clean themselves and can’t monitor their own temperatures, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming through oil or breathing in toxic fumes, she said.
“The oil spill just shows how dirty and dangerous oil drilling is and oil that gets into the water. It’s impossible to clean it up so it ends up washing up on our beaches and people come into contact with it and wildlife comes in contact with it,” she said. “It has long-lasting effects on the breeding and reproduction of animals. It’s really sad to see this broad swatch oiled.”