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As oil washes on shore, locals worry about wildlife and rally around first responders

People on the beach and in the ocean as tugboats pull oil booms offshore
Boats drag oil booms Sunday off the coast of Newport Beach. Authorities said 126,000 gallons of oil leaked from the offshore oil rig Elly, affecting Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Throughout Sunday afternoon, people gathered at the mouth of the Santa Ana River between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach after at least 126,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into Orange County coastal waters. A berm of sand blocked off the ocean and prevented the oil from getting into the river, where birds swooped down to catch fish.

Some people walked barefoot along Newport Beach, around globs of oil.

Mike Ruby, a Manhattan Beach resident, paddled out on a surfboard, occasionally lifted by gentle waves. As the water rose, dark globs of oil were visible before they crashed back down.

Ruby had seen the signs posted along the sand, “Due to oil spill the water is closed,” and had held off on getting in the ocean for about 30 minutes. But the desire to get wet won out.

“It’s not too bad out there. There’s a light oil film on the water,” he said. “But I’m not seeing too many chunks.”

He was worried more about the wildlife and added that he could taste the oil mixing with the saltwater as he surfed. He didn’t notice the black flecks of oil on his chest and back until a reporter pointed them out.

Still, he said, “it felt terrific to get wet, the sunshine and everything.”

Ron Schwalbe, who lives on the Balboa Peninsula, walked along the sand, careful to dodge oil as he snapped photos. He’d been able to smell the spill Saturday night and said it was even stronger Sunday morning.

The 61-year-old checked on the birds walking along the ocean’s edge and warned passersby to watch their step. He checked the surf report, which warned about the oil spill and said not to get in the water.

“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? It seems very odd to me.”

“Make sure your pets don’t get any oil on their paws,” a lifeguard said from his red truck, addressing the people sitting along the sand. “It’s not a good idea to have them in that area at all.”

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 created a slick that spanned about 8,320 acres — larger than the city of Santa Monica — and sent oil to the shores of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach early Sunday.

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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.

Viet Pham, worried about the extra stress on first responders and workers rushing to care for wildlife, immediately offered to feed them for free at his family restaurant, Good Vibes, a plant-based eatery along Main Street in Huntington Beach. The restaurant is giving its Soul Bowl, stuffed with rice and vegetables, to anyone who stops by “in need of nourishment or just a thank you for being on the scene,” he said. “In times like these, I think we’re in the same boat as we come together to try and serve our community — whether through food or cleaning up or [rescuing] some creatures.”

Pham, a Huntington Beach resident for about 20 years, is part of an Asian volunteer team that has delivered more than 80,000 restaurant meals to healthcare professionals, essential workers and seniors since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A disaster can close a lot of businesses, but now’s not the time to worry about this,” he said. “We need to focus on strength and mental strength so people can do quick work.”

Hal Lopez came to Huntington Beach from the Bay Area to catch the Pacific Airshow, staying with relatives. The final day of the event was canceled due to the spill.

On Sunday he stood near the Magnolia Marsh, along Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street. A bird sported dots of black on its normally pristine white feathers. Lopez shook his head.

“Poor birds. Poor creatures,” the visitor said.


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