Officials knew of California oil spill 12 hours before cleanup began

More than 12 hours passed after officials were notified of a sheen on the water off the coast of southern California before a response to the Huntington Beach oil spill began, records show. Questions are now arising over why the response took so long and how that might have intensified the ecological disaster taking form on the Orange county coastline.

Roughly 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude seeped into the ocean off Huntington Beach over the weekend in a suspected leak from an underwater pipeline, splattering the beaches with black. Coastal fisheries in the area are closed to commercial and recreational fishing, and the governor, Gavin Newsom, declared a state of emergency late on Monday. County prosecutors and federal agencies are considering charges and lawsuits.

Oil is no reportedly longer leaking from the pipeline but a cause has not yet been determined. Investigators are looking into whether a ship’s anchor might have struck a pipeline on the ocean floor, US Coast Guard officials said on Monday. Amid a global supply chain crisis, more ships are waiting offshore than usual to access California ports.

The pipeline connects to an offshore oil production platform named Elly, which is connected by a walkway to a drilling platform named Ellen. The platforms and another nearby platform are in federal waters and owned by the Houston-based company Amplify Energy Corp.

Before sand berms could be completed and booms – floating barriers that slow the spread and help contain spills – were deployed, the toxic oil washed into protected marshlands and endangered species’ habitats. Dead birds and fish were reported along the shore as animal rescue organizations rushed to the scene. So far, officials said, three blackened birds had been recovered and were being cared for. A pelican, its feathers irreparably tarred, had to be euthanized.

It’s too early to fully assess the full ecological impact of the disaster but scientists with the California department of fish and wildlife are taking samples of the sea and sand. The area is expected to see an influx of migratory birds in the coming weeks, which could increase the toll.

“It is heartbreaking,” said John Villa, the executive director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, which operates three protected marshes. All of them have been affected. “You go through a whole lot of work and effort to buy the property and restore the wetlands,” he said. “You maintain it and try to keep it as pristine as possible – and then this happens.”

Crews with the Orange county public works department worked through the weekend to create a berm blocking more tarnished water from entering the preserve but by then some oil had already seeped through.

By Monday afternoon, roughly 4,158 gallons of oil had been removed from the water, according to officials, and 8,700ft of boom had been deployed to corral the slick. Beaches in Huntington and Laguna were closed, along with Newport Harbor and Dana Point Harbor. It may be months before they are reopened.

It’s unclear how much damage could have been prevented if action had been taken sooner.

Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify Energy, the company that operates the rig, said at a news conference on Monday that the company discovered the spill on Saturday morning. Lt Cmdr Jeannie Shaye of the coastguard also said the agency hadn’t been notified of the disaster until Saturday. But state oil spill records reviewed by the Associated Press show that the spill was sighted on Friday evening.

A foreign ship anchored off the coast witnessed an “unknown sheen in the water near their vessel” at 6.13pm and the report was called into the response center just after 8.22pm, according to the state report. Lonnie Harrison Jr, vice-president of Colonial Compliance Systems, which works with foreign ships in US waters to report spills, said one its clients had reported the sighting.

About six hours after the first report was received, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that satellite imagery spotted a possible oil slick more than three miles (5km) long. The report by the National Response Center (NRC) noted that there had been many vessels nearby but none were clearly associated with the spill and that “prevented possible identification of a point source”. But, it continued, “the NRC report allows for high confidence that this was oil”.

Regulations enforced by federal and state institutions require rapid reporting after a spill. Oil companies have failed to comply in the past, leading to criminal prosecutions against Plains All American Pipeline, which caused a coastal spill near Santa Barbara in 2015, and Southern California Gas Co for a huge well blowout later that year.

Amplify platforms submitted a spill response plan in 2016, noting the requirement for immediate notification of federal officials when more than one barrel of oil is released into the water. The oil platform known as Elly was supposed to be equipped with an automated leak detection system that would sound an alarm whenever a change in the flow of oil is detected, alerting a control room staffed around the clock. The alarm was designed to sound within five minutes for a large leak and 50 minutes for a smaller one, according to the company’s plan, which warned that a rupture in the pipeline could cause “substantial harm to the environment” and that in a worst-case scenario 3,111 barrels (131,000 gallons) of oil could be released.

Meanwhile, the Orange county district attorney, Todd Spitzer, is assessing whether state charges can be brought against the company even though the leak occurred in waters overseen by the US government. Other potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the US Department of Justice, the coastguard and the California department of fish and wildlife, officials said. A federal lawsuit has also been filed by Peter Moses Gutierrez Jr, who claims he was exposed to the contaminants that washed up on the beach.

Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost. Now, the disaster has spurred renewed calls for an end to offshore drilling in California.

The US representative Mike Levin has introduced legislation to ban new leases for oil or natural gas development and production on the southern California coast. In his bill he notes that, along with threats to habitats and marine life, the area beaches are a boon for the local economy, accounting for roughly $42bn and 600,000 jobs from fishing, tourism, and recreation in San Diego and Orange counties. Those activities have also been threatened by the spill and the closures, which will likely stretch on for weeks.

“The southern California coast is home to world-renowned beaches, cherished marine life, and billions of dollars in ocean-based economic activity that are central to our quality of life but are threatened by offshore drilling,” Levin said in a press release in May. “Oil spills from offshore drilling have done devastating damage to our coastline before, which is why Californians overwhelmingly support a ban on new drilling activity along our coast.”

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