A massive oil spill from an offshore rig was causing major ecological damage in the waters off Huntington Beach Sunday, as officials closed the area to the public and said beaches in the city could be shut down for several weeks or even 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 between the Huntington Beach Pier and Newport Beach. The spill emanated from a facility operated by Beta Offshore about five miles off the coast, and was likely caused by a pipeline leak.
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, with a unified command headed by the U.S. Coast Guard established to handle the crisis.
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 being affected.
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife set up the Oiled Wildlife Care Network hotline, at 877-823-6826, 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 — said the spill has already killed some fish and birds.
“Significant ecological impacts in HB. 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. 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.
Boaters who incur any oil damage to their crafts 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.
Foley told KTLA5 that she was on Sunday morning that “softball-size clumps” of oil were seen on the Huntington Beach shoreline.
She added that Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery, an avid boater, was on his way back from a trip to Catalina Island and navigated through the spill, spotting dolphins swimming through the oil.
The spill also 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 city fully acknowledges the gravity of the decision to cancel the final day of the iconic Pacific Airshow, and the disappointment that this decision will cause,” Huntington Beach officials said in a statement. “However, the need for prompt and intensive intervention efforts requires complete and unfettered access to the marine environment.”
The unified command said the public was being asked to avoid any oiled areas. Trained spill response contractors were cleaning up the disaster. “Public volunteers are not needed and could hinder response efforts,” they said.
The oil spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly platform, which was built in 1980 and processes crude oil from two other platforms that comes from a large reservoir called Beta Field. Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. is the parent company of Beta Offshore.
“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 Los Angeles Times.
The head of Amplify Energy joined Coast Guard, state wildlife and county officials at a news conference Sunday in Long Beach, where we 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,” Amplify President and CEO Martyn 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, which includes about 70 wells and two producing platforms, was shut down entirely for now.
Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s chief health officer, said health officials were “strongly, strongly advising residents to refrain from any activity” on or near the beach, as oil spills can affect human health directly or indirectly. Harmful effects can include oil getting on the skin or people inhaling vapors.
“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 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.
Long Beach officials said their beaches and swimming areas were not affected by the spill, since currents were pulling south from Huntington Beach.
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.