An oil tanker chartered by Chevron, U.S.A., ripped open an undersea oil pipeline with its anchor a mile off El Segundo on Saturday night, spilling 27,720 gallons of a highly volatile oily fuel mixture into Santa Monica Bay, the U.S. Coast Guard reported Sunday.
The accident, which occurred at 7:05 p.m. but was not made public until nearly 11 hours later, forced the closure of the Marina del Rey yacht harbor as a 13-mile “safety zone” was declared from Venice to Manhattan Beach. Boat traffic without Coast Guard authorization was banned in the zone.
A small amount of the oily mixture of jet fuel and diesel oil reached shore at Topanga and Malibu beaches late Sunday night, Coast Guard officials said.
Chevron and the Coast Guard reported that 91% of the 307,440 gallons of the highly volatile mixture in the ruptured pipeline had been pumped back to Chevron’s El Segundo refinery before it could bleed into the ocean.
Protective booms were stretched in front of the Marina del Rey yacht harbor entrance as well as the mouths of Malibu and Ballona creeks--two sensitive wetlands areas that are home to the threatened brown pelican and least terns.
Swimmers and surfers were advised to stay out of the water, but most ignored the warnings.
By late Sunday, the spill had spread in a teardrop-shaped “near transparent” sheen 4.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and was being driven away from shore by 20 to 30 knot winds.
Bill Sheffield, operations manager for Chempro, said Sunday evening that 200 cleanup workers from his company would be deployed as needed along the beaches with shovels, rakes and absorbent booms. He warned that an expected Pacific storm could drive some of the pollution and tar balls onto shore.
Reed Smith of the California Fish and Game Department was more cautious. “What the storm is going to do this evening, no one can predict,” Smith said.
A phalanx of state and local authorities, along with Chevron and Chempro crews, augmented by bulldozers, massed at Malibu Lagoon on Sunday night and constructed a sand berm to protect the sea’s entrance to the environmentally sensitive area.
Late Sunday afternoon, Chevron spokesman Bob Cuneo had said: “We do not expect the oil to reach the beach. We are doing this as a precautionary measure only.”
But late Sunday night, county lifeguards reported smelling and seeing a small amount of oil on beaches at Malibu and Topanga. Full-scale cleanup efforts were to begin at daylight today after a helicopter crew surveys the area, Coast Guard officials said.
“There’s not a whole lot of sand along there; the beach is fairly narrow. It’s mostly rocky (shoreline) and there are homes built on pilings. So, we should expect to see some (homes’) seawalls stained and some rocks stained,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Mike Miles said.
Earlier, officials reported that the sheen was so thin that oil skimming boats were useless.
The accident occurred one year after the tanker American Trader gouged itself twice with its own anchor off Huntington Beach and spilled 400,000 gallons of Alaskan crude onto 15 miles of Orange County beaches. The American Trader, chartered by BP America Inc., was attempting to tie up to an offshore terminal. Crude is considered more troublesome because it takes longer to evaporate and more readily clings to wildlife.
That was the largest oil spill in Southern California since the blowout of an offshore well at Santa Barbara in 1969.
In the latest incident, the 50,000-ton, 616-foot tanker OMI Dynachem was attempting to dock at Chevron’s offshore oil terminal a mile from the beach when its anchor snagged a 26-inch underwater pipeline that carries crude oil and other products from ships to Chevron’s refinery at El Segundo.
“Chevron is taking full responsibility for coordinating the cleanup effort, and we are focusing our resources on minimizing any adverse impact,” said Will Price, president of the San Francisco-based company.
Chevron officials said that environmental impacts were expected to be minimal. Three birds were found oiled but alive.
“We’re not expecting any environmental impact except for those three birds,” said Karen Means, environmental specialist with Chevron.
Some environmentalists were outraged, and the accident was certain to fuel a controversy over further oil and gas drilling off the California coast.
“This is such an inexcusable kind of accident,” said Bob Sulnick, president of the Santa Monica-based American Oceans Campaign.
“If we have technology to intercept a Scud missile, we clearly have the sonar to avoid having one company drop an anchor on its own pipeline. Why don’t they have sonar showing where to drop anchors? Why aren’t there maps showing where the pipelines are?”
Chevron officials said the ship reportedly approached the terminal at the prescribed right-angle and dropped one of its anchors in preparation for the parking maneuver.
Then, a hose that powered a hydraulic wench burst aboard the ship, the officials said. Wenches are used to reel up the line that secures the ship to mooring buoys.
The line was dropped back into the water and the ship began to haul up its anchor to reposition itself for another attempt, according to Chevron spokesman Rod Spackman.
Spackman said the anchor snagged the underwater pipeline, ripping off a section and pulling it an estimated 60 feet to the surface. The 7,100-foot pipeline is one of several used to transport oil from ships to the onshore refinery.
Mooring master Mike Miller, a Chevron employee on the ship’s bridge, was the first to spot the damage.
“We pretty much figured we had a problem at this point,” Chevron spokeswoman Lani Marshall said. “The hard pipe usually sits at the bottom. The anchor basically pulled it to the surface. That’s not supposed to happen.”
The ship’s captain was identified as Tom MacDonald.
Within 10 to 15 minutes, Marshall said, the refinery had been alerted and its pumps were sucking the remaining fuel mixture out of the damaged artery back to the refinery.
Divers inflated a “balloon” inside the pipe to prevent more fuel from escaping and also assessed the damage.
The Coast Guard reported that the ship’s officers and mooring master were given routine breath analyzer tests. The results indicated no alcohol or drug use. Results of urinalysis tests are expected within 48 hours.
Chevron promised to work closely with investigators to find out exactly how the accident happened and what can be done to minimize future incidents.
The spill resulted in the mobilization of 300 oil spill workers, but their services were not needed except to help clear the beaches of seaweed and other debris to make the cleanup easier in case the spill reaches shore.
At the same time, Chevron alerted Clean Coastal Waters, an oil spill cleanup cooperative funded by various oil companies, which dispatched skimmers and other vessels to the scene. A total of 16 vessels, including four skimmers, were sent.
What impact the spill may have on fish is in dispute.
Sulnick of the American Oceans Campaign, which has fought proposals for new oil drilling off the California coast, said a mixture of jet fuel and diesel is highly toxic to fish.
Sulnick said the mixture dissolves in the water and can be ingested by fish. He said the pollution can cause reproductive defects and lesions on fish as well as oil the wings of birds, threatening them with hypothermia.
His view was shared by Mark Gold, staff scientist with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group attempting to rid Santa Monica Bay of pollution.
Chevron environmental specialist Means said: “I’m not anticipating any problems with the fish.” She said the sheen is so thin that only small numbers of fish would be affected. “I wouldn’t expect this one incident to impact the fish or the plant life,” she said.
Smith, of the Department of Fish and Game, said that if the spill reaches the wetlands there could be environmental problems.
“It could have some impact. There are several hundred birds in that area that could be impacted from El Segundo to Malibu,” Smith said.
Whatever the environmental impact, the spill was likely to add to political pressure on the Bush Administration to forestall plans for new drilling off the California coast.
“Thank God it’s not crude. . . . (But) the real point is this proves we’re playing Russian roulette with our beaches,” Sulnick said.
The ship was loaded with two octane boosters used in making gasoline, 71,000 barrels of methyl tertiary butyl either (MTBE) and 10,000 barrels of toluene. The cargo was not involved in the accident.
Chevron said public relations officials began compiling information on the spill about midnight. After adequate information had been gathered, the Coast Guard released the first information about 5:40 a.m. Sunday, Chevron officials said.
Staff writers Tina Anima in El Segundo, Roxana Kopetman in Long Beach and Ronald L. Soble in Malibu contributed to this story.