Operators of an oil rig in Huntington Beach waited more than three hours to shut down a ruptured pipeline despite receiving a low-pressure alarm early Saturday morning, and it appears a ship’s anchor may have hooked the pipe and caused the leak, according to preliminary findings by federal investigators released Tuesday.
Meanwhile, divers contracted to investigate the source of the massive oil leak off the coast of Orange County confirmed that a large section of the 17.7-mile pipeline was moved out of place by as much as 105 feet, and a 13-inch “split” in the line was detected in the displaced section 4 1/2 miles off shore.
According to the unified command responding to the leak — including the Coast Guard, state Department of Fish & Wildlife and oil rig “Elly” and pipeline operator Amplify Energy — the divers confirmed conditions originally spotted by remotely operated vehicles that were initially sent to inspect the pipe.
Divers confirmed that a 4,000-foot section of the pipeline was “displaced,” or bent laterally by a maximum of 105 feet, and they spotted a 13-inch split in the line at the bend’s peak. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said the split is the “likely source” of the leak that has spilled as much as 144,000 gallons into the ocean, forcing the closure of Orange County beaches and some harbors.
Ore said no more oil was seen coming out of the 13-inch break in the line. Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said the split in the line occurred at the point where the pipeline was most severely displaced, by 105 feet. He said the pipeline is a 16-inch steel pipe covered in concrete, indicating it would take a great deal of force to move and rupture it.
Willsher said the “pipeline has been pulled like a bow string,” and it “is in almost a semi-circle.”
Willsher confirmed Monday that the possibility of a ship’s anchor causing the break was among the options being examined as a potential cause. That possibility gained credence in a corrective action order issued to the company by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Office of Pipeline Safety. The order was sent to Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Amplify Energy Corp.
“The root cause of the accident remains unconfirmed at this time,” according to the federal document. “Preliminary reports indicate that the failure may have been caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear.”
According to the document, workers in Beta Offshore’s control room “received a low-pressure alarm on the San Pedro Bay Pipeline, indicating a possible failure at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. The pipeline, however, was not shut down until 6:01 a.m. Saturday.
Willsher has insisted this week that the company was unaware of a leak until it notified state regulators at about 9 a.m. Saturday, although he said the company believes the leak occurred at roughly 2:30 a.m.
The federal report states that the damaged pipe is about 98 feet below the ocean surface. The pipeline was installed in 1980.
Meanwhile, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ratified an emergency declaration issued the previous day by Board Chairman Andrew Do. The supervisors were meeting in closed session Tuesday afternoon to discuss joining expected litigation related to the spill.
Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange County on Monday night to support the response to the oil spill.
Orange County’s emergency management director Michelle Anderson told supervisors on Tuesday that spill estimates range between 120,000 to 150,000 gallons of oil. The plume has drifted as far south as Dana Point, shutting down harbors from Newport to Dana Point.
Ore said oil will continue flowing south with the current.
As of Tuesday morning, about 4,788 gallons of oil had been recovered and 11,360 feet of boom has been deployed to contain it, officials said.
An estimated 15.67 miles of light oiling has been reported along Orange County shorelines, according to the unified command.
Beaches throughout Orange County remained mostly closed as efforts continued to scoop up tar and oil stemming from the massive spill.
Newport Beach offered some access with visitors welcome to go on the sand, but not in the water. Vessels within Newport Harbor can continue operating in the harbor but boats are not allowed in or out to keep them from spreading oil, city spokesman John Pope said.
The damage in Newport Beach is mainly concentrated on the west side from the Santa Ana river down to 52nd Street, Pope said. Some tar and oil has been seen further down the peninsula, but it’s not as slick, and there has been some tar showing up in Corona Del Mar, he added.
“There are some defiant surfers, but lifeguards are working with them to say it’s not safe, not healthy” to go in the water, he said. “We’ll get more aggressive if we have to, but most people don’t want to go into the water. It smells bad, it looks bad and that’s keeping people out.”
City officials are in a “wait-and-see” mode to determine if more restricted access is necessary. It appears that the winds Monday night did not pull the oil in closer to shore, Pope said.
Newport Beach City Manager Grace Leung may issue an emergency declaration Tuesday, which would allow the city to access state and federal funding assistance, Pope said. The City Council would ratify it next week.
Seal Beach’s beaches remain open because officials say the oil slick has not affected their shores.
Officials have established a phone line for claims from residents or businesses affected by the spill. Anyone with a claim was asked to call 866-985-8366 and use “Pipeline P00547” as a reference.
Residents were asked to not try to rescue any oiled animals, but to instead report injured wildlife by calling 877-823-6926, or 877-UCD-OWCN. Interested volunteers must take a four-hour course to train for clean-up efforts and wear special personal protective equipment. Anyone interested can get more details at calspillwatch.wildlife.ca.gov/volunteer or by calling 800-228-4544.
As of Tuesday morning, a total of eight oiled birds have been recovered from the spill area, including one pelican that had to be euthanized.
Seven aircraft were being used to conduct overflights of the spill to assess its size, along with damage and progress in containing it.
While the spill was not reported until 9 a.m. Saturday, some people reported smelling oil in the water late Friday. Members of the unified command confirmed that the National Response Center received a report of an unknown sheen on the water Friday night, but such reports are common and often turn out to be unfounded. State teams responded to the area to investigate the report before sunrise on Saturday, but were unable to properly investigate due to foggy conditions. The Coast Guard and Orange County sheriff’s officials deployed after daybreak.
News that reports of a sheen in the water on Friday night prompted concerns that there was a delay in the response to the leak.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Huntington Beach, tweeted. “We need to know what actions were taken and why we weren’t alerted sooner. We are facing a real crisis and I’ll be requesting a full investigation.”
Steel sent a letter to President Joe Biden Tuesday demanding a federal probe into previous operational violations by Amplify Energy, the causes of the spill and possible delays in the federal response to reports of the spill.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said previously that U.S. Justice Department official are “investigating to determine if any criminal liability exists as it relates to the oil spill.”
Ore said when a call of an oil slick came in Friday night, the Coast Guard followed a standard protocol with a phone call to the reporting party. She said it was too dark to determine whether it was an oil slick, so the Coast Guard followed up at dawn.
“It took about two hours on Saturday morning to detect oil in the water,” Ore said.
Aircraft was then deployed to get an aerial view of the ocean, she said.
Willsher said his company has no reports of anyone contacting the company to report an oil slick Friday night.
“I promise you we would have reported that,” Willsher said.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has ordered the closure of Southern California fisheries in response to the spill, prohibiting the taking of fish and shellfish from Huntington Beach to Dana Point.
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.
Carr said the beach closures could last anywhere “from a few weeks to a few months.”
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. 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 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 Los Angeles Times reported about the 1999 incident.
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.
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. A makeshift facility at that site treated birds injured in the 1990 spill, according to the center’s website.
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