Massive oil spill sends crude onto Orange County beaches, killing birds, marine life

An oil slick believed to have originated from a pipeline leak has hit Huntington Beach, closing a stretch of beach and raising grave wildlife and environmental concerns.

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Crews raced Sunday to contain the damage from a major oil spill off the Orange County coast that left crude spoiling beaches, killing fish and birds and threatening local wetlands.

The spill, first reported Saturday, originated from a pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. The failure caused at least 126,000 gallons of crude to spill into coastal waters creating a slick that spanned about 8,320 acres— larger than the size of Santa Monica—and sent oil to the shores of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach early Sunday.

Oil from the spill also infiltrated Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve in Huntington Beach that is home to dozens of species of birds.

Officials said Sunday afternoon that it appears the pipeline has stopped leaking. But Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said despite efforts to patch the damaged pipeline on Saturday, oil continued to spill from it through the night and divers were still working to repair it early Sunday.

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It’s unclear what caused the spill and how long oil was flowing out of the system.

By sunrise Sunday, oil had washed ashore in Huntington Beach with slicks visible in the ocean, prompting officials to close a stretch of sand from Seapoint Street to the Newport Beach city line at the Santa Ana River jetty. Dead birds and fish had begun to wash up on the shore, officials said.

An oil slick lines the beach as a man walks, taking in the scene of a major oil spill washes ashore at Huntington State Beach
An oil slick lines the beach as a man walks, taking in the scene of a major oil spill washes ashore at Huntington State Beach in Huntington Beach Sunday.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr. “Rest assured that the team in Huntington Beach mobilized quickly, and we are proactively responding. We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”

The oil will likely continue to encroach on Orange County beaches in the next few days, officials said.

A massive oil spill off the Orange County coast has fouled beaches and killed birds and marine life

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After sunrise the smell of diesel and tar overwhelmed the shoreline at Huntington State Beach. Crashing waves brought dark oil onto the shore in clumps and rings.
Despite the beach closure, residents walked out onto the sand early Sunday to observe the damage.

“It’s terrible,” said Jon Ely, a 58-year-old Huntington Beach resident. “This stuff is not going to come up. It’s goo, and it’s thick.”

Mike Ruby, a Manhattan Beach resident, held off paddling out at Newport Beach Sunday afternoon for 30 minutes after seeing the sign posted along the sand, “Due to oil spill the water is closed.” But his desire to get wet won out.

Emerging from the sea, Ruby said he could taste the oil mixing with the the salty ocean water, but it was worth it. “It felt terrific to get wet, the sunshine and everything,” he said.

Oil lines the beach as a bird feeds in the incoming tide.
Oil lines the beach as a bird feeds in the incoming tide while a major oil spill washes ashore on the border of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach at the Santa Ana River Jetties Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Rep. Michelle Steel sent a letter to President Joe Biden Sunday requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County, which would make additional federal assistance available for state and local agencies and individuals impacted by the spill.

“It is imperative that the federal government assist in recovery efforts,” she wrote. “I have serious concerns about the environmental impacts of the spill and applaud the workers who are doing their best to prevent the oil from hitting sensitive wetlands.”

Huntington State Beach is home to a number of species of birds, including gulls, willets, elegant terns and reddish egrets, which are a rarity on the west coast, according to Ben Smith, a biologist and environmental consultant for the county.

Smith drove to the beach Sunday morning to observe wildlife ahead of a construction project planned at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, which opens into the ocean at the border of Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach.

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“There’s tar everywhere,” he said, as he surveyed the birds congregated on the north bank of the river. “You think by now we would have figured out how to keep this kind of thing from happening, but I guess not.”

An aerial view of a major oil spill washing ashore on the border of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The spill could have a significant impact on the habitat, he said.

“If the birds get into this tar it’s going to stick to their feathers and it’s going to be a problem for them,” he said. “It contaminated the water — it’s bad for the wildlife, bad for the water, bad for the people who use the water. It’s really unfortunate.”

There were no immediate reports of marine mammals being affected but the fallout for them usually emerges days after a spill event, said Krysta Higuchi, spokeswoman for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

“The main animals being affected right now are birds,” she said. “Pacific marine mammal center is on a standby mode. This is more of a marathon than a sprint. We have all hands on deck. We’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.”

California officials received reports of oil in the waters off Huntington Beach on Friday evening, records show.

Pacific marine mammal center will be doing intake and triage on seals and sea lions, she said. Whales or dolphins would be transported to Sea World in San Diego because they have the bigger tanks.

“The public has been absolutely amazing asking how they can help,” she said. “This is definitely going to be a very large cleanup. It’s just everywhere. It’s going to be a long process”

The spill has already spewed more fuel into local waters than the oil disaster in the San Francisco Bay in 2007, which involved the cargo ship Cosco Busan striking the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog. That spill poured 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay, resulting in the documented deaths of more than 6,800 birds.

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Out on the beach early Sunday Supervisor Foley watched as softball-sized clumps of oil washed up onto the sand.

“It’s a huge environmental impact and it’s an economic impact both in terms of the cleanup and shutting down a major tourist destination during a pandemic when we’ve all been struggling,” she said. “It’s a tragedy on all fronts.”
The good news, Foley said, is that technology has improved enough in recent years that officials can identify and mitigate the spread of the oil faster than in past spills.

Huntington Beach officials deployed 2,050 feet of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion and protect other sensitive wildlife areas including Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. County officials also built large sand berms near Talbert Marsh to keep ocean water and oil from continuing to flow into the habitat.

“We can get this cleaned up sooner and better than in prior oil spills, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK that this happened,” she said. “Someone has to be held accountable for how this happened.”

Foley urged people to stay away from the beach. She said she could “feel the vapor” in the air and her throat started to hurt while she was on the beach Sunday morning to assess the damage.

Areas just offshore from the Southern California coast are a major source of oil. The platform Elly, located in federal waters off the Orange County coast, was installed in 1980 and processes crude oil production from two other platforms. Elly sits atop a large reservoir of crude oil that is called Beta Field in waters overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Elly is one of 23 oil and gas platforms installed in federal waters off of the Southern California coast, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Besides Elly, which is a processing facility, there are 20 others that produce oil and gas, and two are being decommissioned.

Map showing platforms Elly and Eureka off the Huntington Beach coast.
(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)
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Elly is one of three platforms run by the Beta Operating Company, which also operates platforms Ellen and Eureka nearby. Elly processes oil production from Ellen and Eureka, and Elly is connected by a platform to Ellen.

Workers for Amplify Energy, which owns the platform, noticed a sheen in the water while doing a line inspection Saturday morning and notified the Coast Guard, Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said during a press conference Sunday afternoon.

It is not clear when the leak started. The 17.5-mile pipeline has been suctioned at both ends to stop the flow of oil into the water, and divers are working in the area to determine what went wrong.

It’s also unclear whether the spill is the result of a small leak or a ruptured pipeline, Willsher said.

Congressman Alan Lowenthal, whose district includes Long Beach and parts of Orange County, said the spill is “as tragic as it was preventable.”

“This environmental catastrophe highlights the simple fact that where you drill, you spill. As we are sadly witnessing, when you drill along the coast, when you pipe that oil ashore, our coastlines will bear the brunt of the impacts from such spills,” he said in a statement. “This will be devastating not only to our marine wildlife and ecosystem, but also to the livelihoods of our coastal communities which are built around fishing, tourism, and recreation.”

The Coast Guard received an initial report of an oil sheen about three miles off the coast of Newport Beach about 9:10 a.m. Saturday. Huntington Beach city officials said they were notified of the spill about the same time.

Workers moved to shut the pipeline down and use pressurized equipment to retrieve as much oil as possible soon after the incident was reported, said Kate Conrad of Beta Offshore, a Southern California oil producer involved in the operation.

“We were alerted quickly,” she said.

The Coast Guard has established a unified command along with Beta Offshore and California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

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Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery was sailing to the air show from Avalon on his boat about 11:30 a.m. Saturday when he came across the spill. Other boaters had reported it on the marine radio as they passed over the slick, he said.

Divers are completing an intricate inspection of the pipelines on the sea floor, about 80 to 100 feet below the ocean’s surface.

“As we got within about five miles of the coastline all of the sudden we were going through this major oil slick,” he said. “We had a pod of dolphins on our bow as we were going through it. Of course we couldn’t signal to them to change direction, but they seemed to make it through OK.”

The coast in Newport Beach remained open Sunday, but officials are advising people to stay away from the beach and water. Officials received reports of oil hitting the beach between 52nd Street and the jetty, but it did not appear to be as widespread as the oil washing up in their neighboring city, Avery said.

Early Sunday four men cast fishing lines in the water near the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Newport Beach where the sand remained open. Families hauled beach chairs across the beach to the water.

“Unfortunately, the size and potential impact of this oil spill make it necessary for people to stay out of the water and avoid contact with the oil,” Avery said. “The city’s top priority is to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors during the cleanup effort.”

People are being asked not to approach or touch potentially affected wildlife, as “they can cause more harm than good to the animals,” but instead call the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6926, said Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A crew from the network has been mobilized for any needed rescue and rehabilitation work.

“Members of the public should avoid the oiled shoreline, as the area is unsafe and should be cleaned only by trained contractors,” Laughlin said.

The spill prompted officials to cancel the final day of the three-day Pacific Airshow. The air show, which draws thousands of people to the city annually, featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. The event is thought to generate about $68.1 million in spending and $3.4 million in additional tourism-related revenue, according to a 2019 report on the economic impacts of the Great Pacific Airshow.

Residents surveying Newport Beach Sunday morning expressed skepticism about the timeline of the spill and the notifications they received. Neal Shehab, a 61-year-old resident of Newport Shores, said he started to smell oil fumes as early as Friday night.

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The oil likely will continue to encroach on Orange County beaches for the next few days, officials said.

“We didn’t know what it was,” he said, adding that he believes the public wasn’t quickly notified because “they didn’t want to cancel the first day of the airshow.”

Newport Beach resident Kerry Keating said she and other neighbors began smelling a “horrible and strong” tar-like odor Friday night, and several people on the Nextdoor neighborhood network also reported hearing a loud boom.

“We are all quite concerned for the marine life,” Keating wrote in an email.

On Saturday, the second day of the air show proceeded. Residents posted on social media, wondering if the foul smell was a byproduct of exhaust from overhead planes.

Hal Lopez came to town from the Bay Area to catch the show, staying with relatives in Huntington Beach. Jogging along the packed boardwalk Friday evening, he remembers smelling something rotten—like old meat.

“I didn’t know what was going on and had to stop running. I have a very sensitive nose,” he said.

The gardener said that over dinner, his cousin told him that neighbors were talking about an oil spill. They logged online to search for information to confirm or dispel rumors.

“Everyone was wondering about the local officials giving us a clue or some type of warning,” he said.

Divers examining the 17.7-mile pipeline found it had been displaced by about 105 feet and had suffered a 13-inch split running parallel to the pipe.

At a news conference late Saturday night, local officials expressed grave concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped workers could prevent the oil from hitting sensitive wetlands.

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“We’ve been working with our federal, state and county partners to mitigate the impact that could be a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr told reporters.

The incident comes more than 30 years after a huge oil spill hit the Orange County coast.

On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor in relatively shallow water off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude and fouling popular beaches along the Orange County coast. The oil killed fish and about 3,400 birds.

In 2015, an oil pipeline ruptured north of Santa Barbara and sent 143,000 gallons of crude oil flowing onto Refugio State Beach, with some of it getting into the ocean. Tar balls from the leak were found as far away as Manhattan Beach.

That spill forced the closure of Refugio and El Capitan state beaches and covered waves, rocky shores, sandy beaches and kelp forests with oil. According to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which was involved in recovery efforts, 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the spill.

A Santa Barbara County grand jury later indicted Plains All American Pipeline on 46 criminal counts, including four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters. The company agreed to pay more than $60 million and change its operations to settle litigation arising from the oil spill.

Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) said the Orange County spill is a catastrophe for the area’s beautiful coastline.

“I spoke with state officials last night, and this oil spill sounds comparable to the 2015 spill at Refugio State Beach. Beaches may have to be shut down for several weeks or longer. The impacts to our local marine ecosystem and economy will be significant,” Min said.

There has been debate in recent years about whether the government should allow new oil drilling off the California coast. No new offshore oil drilling has been approved in federal waters off the state coastline since 1984.

The Trump administration proposed to open offshore oil and natural gas reserves, including those under waters off California, for exploration.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed a bill in January that would permanently ban the Department of the Interior from allowing new leases to allow for the exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state.

“This oil spill is a tragic reminder that offshore drilling is a devastating threat to our coast and its wildlife,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program. “I’ve seen the aging oil platforms off Huntington Beach up close, and I know it’s past time to decommission these time bombs. Even after fines and criminal charges, the oil industry is still spilling and leaking into California’s coastal waters because these companies just aren’t capable of operating safely.”

The worst marine oil spill in California’s history occurred in 1969, after a blowout of a drilling rig platform resulted in the spill of 4.2 million gallons of crude off Santa Barbara. Crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed; thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals died.

The 1969 offshore oil spill was the nation’s worst until the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil off the coast of Alaska in 1989. That spill painted beaches black, and resulted in the corpses of seals and dolphins washing in with the tides.

The largest marine oil spill in U.S. history resulted in 134 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion in 2010 rocked the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

The San Francisco Bay Area recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the devastating 1971 oil spill that dumped 800,000 gallons of bunker fuel in the bay. The spill occurred after two oil tankers struck each other in heavy fog. Thousands of birds died.

Sunday afternoon, Ron Schwalbe, who lives in the Balboa peninsula, walked along the sand in Newport Beach, careful to dodge the oil as he snapped photos.

“I’m not surprised and I’m not shocked or anything like that. It’s just odd that it happens in this day and age,” he said. “With all the technology we have, why couldn’t they prevent it? ”