After finding hazardous crude oil toxins in two sand samples from Bolsa Chica State Beach, officials Monday delayed opening one of the last portions of Orange County shoreline tainted by a 394,000-gallon spill from the tanker American Trader.
Samples taken Friday from a 1,500-foot stretch of beach north of Golden West Street showed levels of potentially harmful hydrocarbon residues averaging 300 parts per million, well above the 100 parts per million maximum deemed safe by state and federal experts.
But British Petroleum spokesman Chuck Webster said the results probably don't mean that the beach is still contaminated--only that the tests were skewed by two high-concentration samples.
"In our visual inspection of the area today, we didn't see any oil," Webster said. "We didn't see anything that would cause that kind of measurement. One reading like that will pop you."
British Petroleum owned the Alaskan crude that spilled on Feb. 7, when the American Trader ran over its anchor while attempting to moor at a pipeline 1.3 miles off Huntington Beach. A substantial amount of the oil eventually washed ashore, killing and injuring wildlife and causing officials to close shoreline from Huntington Beach to just north of Laguna Beach.
While most of the 16 samples from the 1,500-foot Bolsa Chica area measured from two to 50 parts per million, experts at Med-Tox Associates Inc., an Anaheim-based environmental health testing company, found one sample at 400 parts per million and another at 5,000 per million.
The Med-Tox samples were dug along the beach every 500 feet, one from the surf line and another at mid-beach, said Dr. Richard Wade, president of the company. At each spot, two measurements were taken, one from up to four inches below the surface and another from six to 10 inches underground, he said.
Webster said cleanup officials believe that the two samples might have come from unrelated tar balls that have been found recently along Southern California beaches from San Clemente to Ventura County.
U.S. Coast Guard officials believe that the tar balls, from a quarter-inch to four inches around, may have been naturally released when offshore oil seepage sites along the coast were agitated by seismic activity over the past two weeks.
Webster said the area will be retested and that results could be ready by Wednesday. "If they are clean, then we'll be positioned for reopening on Wednesday," Webster said.
Sometime today, meanwhile, a mile of Huntington State Beach, from Magnolia Street south to the Santa Ana River, and a 1 1/2-mile Bolsa Chica stretch south of the main lifeguard tower could open if crews finish removing barriers that have blocked access since oil from the spill washed ashore.
British Petroleum kept about 50 cleanup workers on the job Monday, looking for any tar balls that may have washed up along several miles of shoreline. Webster said crews will remain until final test results are available next week.
"We're trying to follow a good Samaritan policy until we can find the source of those," he said.
Huntington Beach Lifeguard Capt. Bill Richardson warned that swimmers who return to the beach and get tar on themselves should not attempt to remove it with gasoline, but with non-hazardous mineral oil that lifeguards can supply.
Even as the last remaining beaches were set to open, the head of an oceanic watchdog group that has been monitoring the spill cleanup charged Monday that officials have acted irresponsibly by failing to test ocean-floor sediment and offshore water for toxicity.
"I'm alarmed that the only testing they've done is on the sand and on shore," said Robert Sulnick, executive director of the Santa Monica-based American Oceans Campaign. "It's the water itself that's the real problem. . . ."
"For people to go back in the water now would seem to be very, very ill-advised," Sulnick cautioned. "Individuals should understand that there may be a risk involved."
Sulnick said he has no independent information on any contamination to the ocean itself or its possible health effects on swimmers and waders. But he cited government and private studies in asserting that about 40% of the spill's volume can be expected to have remained in the water and that its remnants may remain detectable for years.
Wade, of Med-Tox, acknowledged that his firm has done water toxicity testing only on and within a few feet of the shore. But he remains confident from those readings that the public has no reason to worry.
Results from 37 samplings of tidal water yielded undetectable levels of hydrocarbons for all but one, he said. The detectable sampling, he said, came a few weeks ago near the mouth of the Santa Ana River after rock washing there and suggested "just a trace" of toxic chemicals.
Beach Cleanup 1: Beaches north of the main Bolsa Chica lifeguard tower were open March 2. 2: A 1 1/4 mile stretch of beach south of the main lifeguard tower will open sometime today. Officially, the opening will take place at 6 a.m. Wednesday. 3: A 1 1/2 mile stretch of beach north of Golden West Street will remain closed until at least Wednesday, when new test results will be available. 4: A section of beach from Golden West Street to Beach Boulevard opened March 1. 5: A section of coastline from Magnolia Street to Beach Boulevard opened March 3. 6: A mile of Huntington State beach from Magnolia Street to the Santa Ana River will open sometime today. Officially, it will open at 6 a.m. Wednesday. 7: A three-mile stretch from the Santa Ana River to the Newport Pier opened Saturday. 8: Beaches from the Newport Pier south to Crystal Cove State Beach were reopened Feb. 27.