More Orange County beaches were at least partially reopened Friday as workers continued scooping up oil from the sand and water from a major leak off the coast of Huntington Beach.
The beach reopenings came one day after officials reduced estimates of the amount of oil spilled into the ocean from ruptured underwater pipeline.
On Friday, visitors to Laguna Beach were able to return to the sands of the beaches there, but not the shoreline or the water. The county-run beaches in Laguna Beach include Aliso Beach, Laguna Royale Beach, Table Rock Beach, Thousand Steps Beach and West Street Beach.
Visitors to Aliso Beach, however, will have to find street parking because the lot there is closed to provide staging for the cleanup workers.
County-run beaches further south at Salt Creek Beach, Strands Beach and Baby Beach within Dana Point Harbor reopened on Thursday, while the harbor itself reopened Friday afternoon. Capistrano and Poche beaches are still closed because of construction.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the part of the beach under her city’s control has remained open to provide access to some sand, but not to the water. The state-run beaches are fully closed.
Newport Beach offered some access, with visitors welcome to go on the sand, but not in the water. Newport Harbor also reopened Friday afternoon.
Visitors to the beaches will see the response teams clad in protective gear as they do their jobs and they are discouraged from picking up any oil.
The unified command response team has 900 workers on the job. So far, 5,544 gallons of crude oil has been recovered in the water. Crews collected 13 barrels of tar balls on Thursday and about 172,500 pounds of “oily debris” has been scooped up along the shorelines.
The response team has deployed 14,060 feet of containment boom.
Meanwhile, clean-up workers were checking San Diego County for oil at Santa Margarita River, Harbor Beach and Oceanside City Beach, Aqua Hedionda Lagoon, Del Mar Fairgrounds and San Dieguito Lagoon, Los Penasquitos Lagoon and La Jolla Shores-Scripps.
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Dana Point, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, on Friday led a letter signed by 77 other congressional representatives urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to make sure the Build Back Better Act continues to retain a ban on any new federal oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Levin is also behind the American Coasts and Oceans Protection Act that would bar any new leasing for oil drilling along the Southern California Coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo County.
Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Norwalk, and Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, also signed on to the letter.
Authorities earlier this week were bracing for a worst-case scenario of about 144,000 gallons of oil, but on Thursday, officials dramatically reduced estimates of the actual amount of oil spilled.
“There’s speculation of about 30,000 gallons, but that’s not been confirmed,” Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. “But that would make more sense,” adding that the amount of wildlife so far affected by the spill does not reflect a larger oil spill.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore estimated that roughly 588 barrels of oil had spilled, which would equate to about 24,700 gallons. That’s being considered a minimum amount leaked, but officials were unsure of a possible maximum number.
Although early speculation about the cause of the leak has focused on a possible pipeline rupture due to a ship’s anchor, Bartlett said Coast Guard officials were considering what effect a roughly 4.4-magnitude earthquake centered near Torrance in mid-September might have had on the pipeline.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders were pressing the federal agencies investigating the leak for regulatory information on Amplify Energy, the company that owns the “Elly” oil rig connected to the ruptured pipeline.
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher insisted the company was unaware of any release of oil into the ocean until about 8 a.m. Saturday, adding that the firm responded and reported the incident immediately.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Office of Pipeline Safety issued a corrective action order Tuesday, saying workers in the company’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,” but the pipeline carrying crude oil was not shut down until about 6 a.m. Saturday.
Asked repeatedly about that timeline during a Wednesday media briefing in Huntington Beach, Willsher said only that the company was cooperating fully with federal and local investigators
“We are working with them, giving them all the transparency and information that we have,” Willsher said.
As for whether there was an alarm that alerted crews to a pressure drop, he said. “We are conducting a full investigation of that … to see if there was anything that should have been noticed.”
But he questioned whether there were any signs of alarm.
“I’m not sure if there was a significant loss of pressure,” Willsher said, adding that when his company’s crews saw oil in the water at 8:09 a.m., an emergency response was initiated.
Willsher said his company was also unaware of any reports of a sighting of oil in the water as early as 6 p.m. Friday.
“If we were aware of something Friday night, I promise you we would have immediately stopped all operations and moved forward,” he said.
Willsher did not participate in Thursday’s news conference, and the company did not immediately respond to a message.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network reported as of Thursday that 25 live birds have been recovered and 10 have died. OWCN director Michael Ziccardi said some of the birds recovered included seven federally threatened Snowy Plovers, which were expected to survive. The team had to use special traps to corral the birds, he said.
Divers contracted to investigate the source of the leak 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.
Ore reiterated Thursday that the split is the “likely source” of the leak, which has been stopped.
Willsher 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. He said the pipeline was “pulled like a bow string,” lending credence to the possibility of a ship’s anchor catching and dragging the line.
That possibility gained credence in the federal corrective action order issued to the company’s subsidiary, Beta Offshore, on Tuesday.
“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.”
The federal report states that the damaged pipe is about 98 feet below the ocean surface. The pipeline was installed in 1980.
Bartlett and Orange County CEO Frank Kim said they were pleased with the ramping up of efforts to clean up after the spill.
“The response has been great,” Bartlett told City News Service. “It’s been all hands on deck. They’ve done a fantastic job.”
Kim called for more urgency in responding to the spill earlier this week but by Thursday, was pleased with the pace.
“Like with any emergency response the first day or two is difficult while the infrastructure is being stood up,” Kim told City News Service. “But I do think the unified command has hit its stride … at least from what I’m seeing on my end, I’ve been happy the response has increased and the communication has improved.”
Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, told City News Service, “Right now the focus should be … containment, cleanup and recovery. Right now, our focus needs to be on those three things.”
Once those goals have been accomplished, the attention can turn to potential culprits, negligence or wrongdoing, Umberg said.
“Then, we can start figuring out whether someone needs to be prosecuted or an entity needs to be prosecuted or whatever else needs to be done to prevent this from happening again in the future,” Umberg said.
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, who chairs the Accountability and Administrative Review committee, told reporters at Thursday’s news conference that, “Yes, our community deserves answers and, yes, we will get those answers.” She pledged to hold hearings as soon as possible.
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 refrain from trying 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.
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.
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.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife 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.
The spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly oil-rig platform, built 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.
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.
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.