Tanker Spills Crude Oil Off Huntington Beach


An estimated 6,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Pacific on Wednesday night after an oil tanker apparently hit its own anchor, opening a hole in its hull while attempting to moor about two miles off Huntington Beach.

“By any measure, it is a large spill,” Coast Guard Lt. Vincent Campos said as emergency teams raced rising tides and expected high surf to try to contain the slick and protect miles of Orange County beaches.

Edd Fong, a spokesman for the State Lands Commission, which monitors oil exploration in coastal waters, called the spill one of the largest off the coast of California since the Santa Barbara spill in 1969.

That spill involved 77,000 barrels of crude oil.


By late Wednesday, the slick was 1 1/2 miles long and 400 yards wide. But there were no reports of any oil washing ashore. However, some oil from the 800-foot tanker American Trader was expected to hit Orange County beaches overnight and officials were prepared to close both Newport and Huntington harbors.

Reaction to the incident was swift, triggering more outrage at the use of coastal waters to drill and transport crude oil.

State Controller Gray Davis, chairman of the State Lands Commission, and commission member Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy flew to the scene Wednesday night, while Huntington Beach city officials declared an emergency.

“This kind of craziness has to stop,” said Bob Hattoy, Southern California regional director of the Sierra Club. “We’ve seen these accidents from Alaska to Delaware . . . and now here. It just proves that oil and coastal waters don’t mix.”

Coast Guard officials received the first report of a spill from the U.S.-registered tanker about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

As darkness fell, emergency teams began to descend on the scene, but moderate swells made initial efforts to contain the estimated 250,000-gallon slick with booms difficult, officials said.

A Coast Guard strike team, an oil industry cooperative cleanup team and a federal anti-pollution team responded to the damaged tanker.

Local and county fire and lifeguard crews also immediately began monitoring a six-mile stretch of shoreline from Newport Beach on the south to Seal Beach on the north for evidence of oil washing ashore.

The tanker, operated by British Petroleum, had left its Long Beach anchorage at about 1 p.m. bound for Huntington Beach, where it was to moor offshore and unload its cargo of crude oil overnight through underwater pipelines to the mainland.

The tanker was scheduled to return Thursday morning to the Atlantic Richfield Terminal at Berth 77 in Long Beach. The tanker arrived in Long Beach on Jan. 29 from the Port of Valdez in Alaska carrying more than 560,000 barrels of oil.

Sanford Schmidt, president of New York-based American Trading Transportation Co., which owns the tanker, said it appeared that the vessel “struck her anchor sitting on the bottom.”

“There is not all that much water out there,” he said, adding that a swell apparently lifted the tanker up as it attempted to moor and when it came down “it hit the anchor.”

Fearing such a calamity, a coalitin of Orange County environmentalists, civic officials and residents have long opposed proposals to allow oil and gas exploration off the coast.

Even a majority of the county’s Republican congressional delegation broke ranks in the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan over the issue, warning that a major spill posed a threat to coastal tourism, one of the region’s major industries.

To contain the slick, Skip Onstead, manager of Clean Seas--an oil spill cooperative that handles spills between Santa Barbara and Point Dume--dispatched a special 130-foot vessel.

Onstead said the accident is classified as a “major spill.”

The cleanup vessel, Mr. Clean II, carries a six-man crew and can hold 1,500 barrels of recovered oil.

“They’ve asked for our help and we’re sending one of our vessels. It will be there in the morning,” Onstead said.

Meanwhile, two booms had been placed around the tanker and the slick, but some of the oil reportedly had escaped containment.

Schmidt, whose company owns five other ships, said the American Trader and its captain, Robert Laware, have a good safety record. He said the firm has never been involved in a spill as large as Wednesday’s incident.

“We have had some minor problems, but nothing like this,” Schmidt said. “Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about this right now, but it is happenstance, not anything negligent.”

According to American Trading, the company is sending an oil spill team to Huntington Beach to help with cleanup operations and damage assessment. Schmidt said the company is responsible for paying the cost of cleanup and for any property damage.

At Huntington State Beach, lifeguard dispatcher Renee Field said lifeguards and emergency personnel were bracing for the worst as a six-knot wind pushed the slick toward shore. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service predicted moderate to heavy surf today.

“We know it’s probably going to hit our beach,” Field said. “It’s a 99% chance come morning we will close the beach. But there’s nothing we can do.”

At nearby Bolsa Chica State Beach, lifeguard Greg Scott said officials there were taking a “wait-and-see attitude” before launching any preventive plans.

“We can’t see it at this point; we can’t react until we have more information,” he said.

AMERICAN TRADER American registered oil tanker Ship is leased by British Petroleum from American Trading and Transport of New York Length: 800 feet Width: 125 feet Capacity: 23 million gallons Amount spilled: About 250,000 gallons

Ship arrived Jan. 29 at Port of Long Beach from Valdez, Alaska. The tanker left the port with a full load at 1 p.m. Wednesday and headed for the Golden West Offshore Moorings, a tanker terminal about two miles off Huntington Beach. About 12.5 million gallons was to be unloaded and piped from the terminal to an oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs. Source: U.S. Coast Guard and British Petroleum

FUEL ON THE FIRE--The spill’s political consequences may exceed its environmental impact. A27