OCTOBER 3, 2021
Officials warned of an “environmental catastrophe” Sunday after more than 120,000 gallons of oil leaked from an offshore rig and washed up on beaches south of Los Angeles, threatening wildlife and closing popular shores.
Authorities said Sunday afternoon that the heavy crude oil did not appear to be leaking anymore, but they could not say so with certainty, as the cause and timeline remained under investigation.
The spill south of Los Angeles, a few miles offshore from Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, was reported Saturday and leaked at least 126,000 gallons, officials said, sending people scrambling to contain the fallout and protect sensitive habitats.
“This oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Kim Carr said at a Sunday news conference. She said authorities are looking at how to hold accountable the responsible parties and warned that there would be “a lot more hitting our shores over the next few days.”
Huntington Beach said it has deployed more than 2,000 feet floating barriers called “booms” at seven wetland spots in an effort to contain the spill. But oil still “infiltrated” and caused “significant damage” in a wetlands area called Talbert Marsh that is home to many bird species, according to Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley. The county is building a sand berm to keep the oil from intruding further, Foley said at a Sunday news conference.
The damage to wildlife is still emerging. While Foley said dead birds and fish have started to wash ashore, other officials said Sunday that they could only confirm that one duck was “oiled” and is getting veterinary care. “We’re hoping we have minimal impact, but we’re preparing for the worst,” said Christian Corbo, a patrol lieutenant with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Authorities said the oil came from Platform Elly, a pipeline operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy. Speaking Sunday alongside responding agencies, Amplify Energy chief executive Martyn Willsher said that the company is investigating the spill and that divers are at a potential source site. He said the pipeline has been “meticulously maintained” throughout Amplify’s ownership and that “everything is shut down.”
“Our employees live and work in these communities, and we’re all deeply impacted and concerned about the impact,” Willsher said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that this is recovered as quickly as possible.”
Huntington State Beach was closed, while the final day of a popular air show that drew 1.5 million visitors to area shores Saturday was canceled. The city of Huntington Beach has also closed much of its ocean and shoreline, officials said. Orange County Health Officer Clayton Chau urged people against swimming or even gathering on affected beaches and warned that vapors from the spill could spread on the wind.
Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) sent a letter to President Biden on Sunday, requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County, and local leaders said the booms aimed at containment could stay in place for weeks or months.
“It is imperative that the Federal Government assist in recovery efforts. Constituents who live along the shoreline are already reporting oil on the beach and strong odors,” Steel wrote, adding, “I have serious concerns about the environmental impacts of the spill and applaud the workers who are doing their best to prevent the oil from hitting sensitive wetlands.”
Sean Anderson, a coastal ecotoxicologist who leads an environmental science and resource management program at California State University at Channel Islands, said the biggest immediate concern will be the oil’s impact on beaches, wetlands and animals.
“The animals most affected, that we can’t do anything about, are the critters just offshore. Those are going to be seabirds, marine mammals, things of that nature,” he said. Some, like dolphins, can swim out of the way if they see oil.
But Anderson said seabirds are particularly vulnerable, because if they land on water in the area of the leak, the oil could splash on them. The birds maintain their warmth by having clean feathers, so their instinct is to preen or clean the oil off, “as if it’s a piece of dirt,” he said. “Then they ingest the oil,” he said. “If it’s a little, it might be okay, but it’s usually a pretty toxic exposure, and they die.”
He said sand crabs that live right where the waves break on the face of the beach will also be heavily harmed. “Everybody eats those things — fish eat them, birds eat them. They are really super important for the sandy beach ecosystem,” Anderson said. While the environmental impact may be problematic, he said “in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small amount of oil in terms of many of our offshore oil spills.”
The largest oil spill recorded in the waters off California, near Santa Barbara in 1969, spilled an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil over 10 days and killed an estimated 3,500 seabirds, as well as marine animals such as dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions. It reportedly provided the inspiration for Earth Day. The latest spill amounts to about 3,000 barrels.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said it sent surveillance and cleanup crews to the area, and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California at Davis said it had deployed staff members to support response efforts in the Newport Beach area.
Newport Beach officials advised residents to avoid contact with ocean water and parts of the beach where oil could be seen. The city said its beaches would remain open to the public but urged people to avoid the water and oiled areas. Residents were urged to call a hotline if they spotted any wildlife affected by the oil.
Krysta Higuchi, a spokesperson for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, said the group is prepared to treat marine mammals but had not yet received reports of any affected by the spill. “It’s all hands on deck, but it’s still a waiting game as we don’t know the full extent of the issue,” she said, adding it could be hours, days or weeks before harmed marine mammals wash ashore. “We’re just preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.”