Offshore recovery teams responding to the massive oil spill off the Orange County coast have not observed any free-floating oil in the water for three consecutive days, officials said Saturday.
Cleanup assessment teams equipped in protective gear were monitoring, inspecting and cleaning beaches in Orange and San Diego counties, and officials warned members of the public not to handle any tar balls they may encounter on the sand.
Huntington Beach, Huntington Beach State Park, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Bolsa Chica State Park and Crystal Cove State Park remained under soft closures, meaning the beaches were open, but the water and waterline were closed.
Salt Creek Beach, Strands Beach and Baby Beach in Dana Point were open with water advisory postings.
According to data provided Saturday afternoon by the Unified Command handling the cleanup effort:
— More than 1,300 people are conducting response operations.
— To date, 5,544 total gallons of crude oil have been recovered by vessel.
— 13.5 barrels of tar balls were recovered Friday.
— Approximately 232,500 lbs. of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines.
— Three overflights were scheduled for Saturday.
— 11,400 feet of containment boom have been strategically deployed.
Officials also said a temporary flight restriction was lifted Friday.
The Unified Command is headed by the U.S. Coast Guard and also including Orange County, San Diego County, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Amplify Energy Corp. — the company that owns the damaged pipeline that leaked the oil.
The leak was reported on the morning of Oct. 2 a few miles off the Huntington Beach coast, although some boaters reported smelling something in the water Friday.
Authorities initially estimated that as much as 144,000 gallons of oil may have leaked from the damaged pipeline, but officials said Thursday that the actual amount is likely much lower, although there is still no firm number. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, USCG 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.
Crews responded to the leak last Saturday morning, and beaches were quickly closed as authorities realized the size and scope of the oil slick.
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 (last) Friday night, I promise you we would have immediately stopped all operations and moved forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s lead investigator said Friday that the ruptured underwater pipeline might have been damaged several months to a year ago, adding that it’s unclear when the crack occurred or when oil began seeping into the water.
The revelation marks a major change in the investigation into the cause of the leak.
Capt. Jason Neubauer told reporters Friday that underwater video of the damaged pipeline shows “marine growth” around the 13-inch crack in the pipeline that was left exposed when its concrete casing was ripped away, likely by the strike of a ship’s anchor that hooked the line and dragged it 105 feet out of place.
Investigators were analyzing the maturity of the vegetation to give them a clue as to when the pipeline was initially struck and lost its protective concrete casing.
The presence of the marine vegetation on the exposed pipe “has refocused the … timeframe of our investigation to at least several months to a year ago,” Neubauer said.
He said a routine inspection of the pipeline conducted by Amplify Energy in October of last year showed no damage.
“We’re going to be looking at every vessel movement over that pipeline and every close encroachment” over the past year,” Neubauer said.
That data includes satellite images, radio broadcasts and the traffic of vessels. Investigators were also looking into the possibility that a winter storm Jan. 24-25 may have contributed to the positioning of ships’ anchors in the area.
Also unclear is exactly when the crack in the pipeline occurred. Neubauer said the pipe may not have ruptured when it was originally pulled out of place and stripped of its concrete casing. Or a small crack may have occurred that gradually got bigger over time, leading to the 13-inch fissure now present in the pipe.
Neubauer also said the pipeline may have been struck multiple times over the past year, and investigators were also examining whether recent earthquakes may have contributed to the damage.
Divers contracted to investigate the source of the leak confirmed that a 4,000-foot 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.
The National Transportation Safety Board will also conduct an investigation that will be coordinated with the Coast Guard to avoid redundancies, said Andrew Ehlers, the chief investigator for the probe.
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 is owned by Amplify Energy and 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.
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.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network reported Thursday that 25 live birds have been recovered and 10 have died due to the spill. 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.
For the latest wildlife information, visit owcn.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/pipeline-p00547-incident.
Updates on fishery closures can be found at socalspillresponse.com/fisheries-closure/.
Community members impacted by the spill who need to file a claim can call 1-866-985-8366. Owners of vessels that have been impacted by the spill are urged not to clean their own boats, and not to use soaps or dispersants.
The Unified Command said oil contains hazardous chemicals, and beachgoers who encounter tar balls were encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org. If skin contact occurs, they are advised to wash the area with soap and water or baby oil and avoid using solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, or similar products on the skin. Officials say these products, when applied to skin, present a greater health hazard than the tar ball itself.
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.