Efforts continued around Huntington Beach Monday to clean up a massive oil spill from an offshore rig that threatened the lives of fish, birds and other ocean wildlife, and threatened to keep visitors from enjoying the area for weeks or months.
The U.S. Coast Guard was leading the response to the spill, which comprised 126,000 gallons of oil and covered about 5.8 nautical miles or 13 square miles between the Huntington Beach Pier and Newport Beach. The spill was likely caused by a pipeline leak from a facility operated by Beta Offshore about five miles off the coast, officials said.
The agency reported that 14 boats conducted oil recovery operations Sunday afternoon while three Coast Guard boats enforced a safety zone off 1,000 yards around oil spill boats while four aircraft assessed damage and progress.
About 3,150 gallons of oil has so far been recovered from the water and 5,360 feet of boom has been deployed to control the spread of the oil.
The spill was reported at about 9 a.m. Saturday, although some people reported smelling oil in the water late Friday. It drew a response from all levels of government.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr described the situation as a “potential ecologic disaster,” and said some of the oil had reached the shore and was impacting the Talbert Marshlands and the Santa Ana River Trail.
“Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are completely covered in oil,” Carr said Sunday, adding that all beaches south of Seapoint were closed, and the state beach in the city was also closed.
Carr said the closures could last anywhere “from a few weeks to a few months.”
Health officials warned people not to swim, surf or exercise by the beach because of the potential health hazards. People were also urged not to fish in the area since the waters are considered toxic.
Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Huntington Beach, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Sunday requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County.
“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. “Officials are already responding to protect sea life. Dead fish and birds are already being reported on beaches and shorelines. 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.”
Skimming equipment and booms were deployed to prevent the inflow of oil into the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and Huntington Beach Wetlands, although officials said wildlife was already affected.
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife set up the Oiled Wildlife Care Network hotline, at 877-823-6926, for people to call if they see wildlife impacted from the oil. Members of the public were urged not to approach any animals themselves.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley — who represents the impacted cities of Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach — also said the spill has already killed some fish and birds.
“Oil has washed up now onto the HB beachfront. We’ve started to find dead birds & fish washing up on the shore,” Foley tweeted at 12:48 a.m. Sunday She added that the damage from the spill could be irreversible, calling the beaches and marshlands “part of our heritage” that draw countless numbers of people to the shore.
Oil also began to wash ashore in Newport Beach on Sunday, where officials were asking people not to enter the water, although they hadn’t officially closed the ocean.
The city of Laguna Beach also closed its beaches to the public effective 9 p.m. Sunday.
“Though the spill has not yet reached the shoreline of Laguna Beach, Laguna Beach Marine Safety, Fire, Public works and police personnel are anticipating this may happen and are ready to respond. Beach closures are needed to protect the health and safety of the public and to allow contractors to begin oil cleanup if such an event occurs,” officials said.
People whose boats sustain oil damage were asked not to clean the boats themselves since they could spread the oil, but to contact county officials who could refer them to the proper channels for possible reimbursement of cleaning expenses.
A claims number was established for any people or businesses who feel they may have been affected by the incident at 866-985-8366 (reference Pipeline P00547).
The spill caused Huntington Beach to cancel the final day of the Pacific Airshow, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the shore on Saturday. “The need for prompt and intensive intervention efforts requires complete and unfettered access to the marine environment,” Huntington Beach officials said in a statement.
The unified command said the public was asked to avoid any oiled areas. Trained spill response contractors were cleaning up the disaster.
People wishing to assist with cleanup or wildlife recovery efforts were asked to visit the Surfrider Foundation and HB Wetlands & Wildlife websites.
The spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly platform, built in 1980 to process crude oil from two other platforms, which draw from a large reservoir called Beta Field. Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. is the parent company of Beta Offshore.
Elly is one of three platforms operated by Beta Operating Co., which also operates Ellen and Eureka nearby. Elly processes oil production from Ellen and Eureka and is fed by some 70 oil wells. The processing platform separates oil from water. “It’s just crude oil that’s sent to the shore,” Willsher said.
Elly is one of 23 oil and gas platforms installed in federal waters off the Southern California coast, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Besides Elly, a processing facility, there are 20 others that produce oil and gas, and two are being decommissioned.
The potential source of the oil leak is about 4 1/2 miles off the coast, along the 17 1/2-mile pipeline to shore, where it is delivered to a local refinery, Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive of Houston-based Amplify Energy, parent company of the pipeline’s operator, said at a briefing Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The offshore platform system has been linked to earlier leaks, including a 2,000-gallon spill that led to a $48,000 federal fine against the operator for improper calibration of a leak-detection system. The corroded pipeline carried oil, water and gas from Eureka to Elly, The Times reported about the 1999 incident.
Regarding the Saturday spill, “Workers moved to shut down the pipeline and used pressurized equipment to retrieve as much oil as possible soon after the incident was reported at 12:18 p.m.,” Kate Conrad of Beta Offshore told the Times.
The head of Amplify Energy joined Coast Guard, state wildlife and county officials at a news conference Sunday in Long Beach, and said company divers were on location investigating the source and potential cause of the leak.
“Our employees live and work in these communities and we’re all deeply impacted and concerned about the impact on not just the environment but the fish and wildlife as well,” Willsher said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that this is recovered as quickly as possible, and we won’t be done until this is completed.”
Willsher said the company’s complicated processing operation was shut down entirely for now.
Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s chief health officer, issued a health advisory Sunday for residents who may have encountered contaminated materials.
“The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill,” Chau said. “People may come in direct contact with oil and/or oil products while walking in a contaminated area (e.g., beach). An initial irritation will be obvious. Additionally, contaminants may be absorbed through the skin. Even when an oil sheen may not be visible, dispersed and dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water.
“Please contact your family physician or call 911 if you are experiencing adverse symptoms. Currently, we are asking residents to please refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering, etc.,” the statement continued.
“This oil spill is a tragic reminder that offshore drilling is a devastating threat to our coast and its wildlife,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program. “I’ve seen the aging oil platforms off Huntington Beach up close, and I know it’s past time to decommission these time bombs. Even after fines and criminal charges, the oil industry is still spilling and leaking into California’s coastal waters because these companies just aren’t capable of operating safely. The only solution is to shut this dirty business down.”
State wildlife officials said at least one soiled ruddy duck was receiving medical care, while local wildlife rescue groups were mobilizing to help.
“We have all our gear out, which includes masks, goggles for our staff,” Debbie McGuire, director of the Wetlands & Wildlife Center in Huntington Beach, told the OC Register. “We also have IV fluids ready to stabilize the animals.” The center received at least five birds from the spill Sunday, she said.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach was also making its staff and facility available if needed.
The spill was reminiscent of another ecological disaster decades ago. An estimated 3,400 birds were killed when the American Trader oil tanker ran over its anchor and punctured its hull on Feb. 7, 1990, spilling an estimated 416,600 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Huntington Beach.
As a result of the spill, the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center was established March 31, 1998, at 21900 Pacific Coast Highway to help injured and orphaned wildlife including oil-soiled birds, according to the DFW. A makeshift facility at that site treated birds injured in the 1990 spill, according to the center’s website.