The smell of oil wafted in the air Friday. Why did it take another day to identify massive O.C. spill?

Workers with Patriot Environmental Services clean up oil that flowed into the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach.
Workers with Patriot Environmental Services clean up oil that flowed into the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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TK Brimer was getting ready to close up his surf shop, Frog House, Friday evening when he smelled something like tar in the air.

Brimer, who has owned the shop just steps from the sand on West Coast Highway for more than 40 years, is used to the unique odors that sometimes drift from the nearby coastline. But the aroma that hung outside his shop at 6:30 p.m. was unique, he said.

Around that time, the Newport Beach Police Department’s phones started ringing with residents throughout the city reporting the smell of gas. Police received enough inquiries that the department sent out a community advisory about 7:45 p.m. saying authorities were checking it out.

But it was not until 24 hours later that authorities raised alarms that the Orange County coast was dealing with a massive oil spill with potentially catastrophic consequences.

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The time it took to determine the scope of the leak — more than 126,000 gallons of crude flowing from an oil platform off the coast — has sparked questions from residents and others about how the early hours of the crisis were handled. They also wonder why federal and local agencies were offering a much less dire assessment of the situation through Saturday evening.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said a broken pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform called Elly caused the spill.

On Sunday evening, officials said they still didn’t know when the leak began or even whether it had been fully plugged.

They said the leak is linked to a pipeline connected to Elly, a 41-year-old platform 8.6 miles offshore. The potential source of the oil leak is about 4.5 miles off the coast, somewhere along the 17.5-mile pipeline to shore, where crude is eventually delivered to a local refinery, said Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive of Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp., parent company of the pipeline’s operator.

Map showing platforms Elly and Eureka off the Huntington Beach coast.
(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

Sometime Saturday morning, Amplify Energy notified the U.S. Coast Guard that an oil spill had occurred, after the company observed an oily sheen in the water. The Coast Guard said it received an initial report of an oil sheen at 9:10 a.m.

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

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.

“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.”

Shortly after noon, the Coast Guard announced on Twitter that it was responding to a large oil slick.

Then, late Saturday afternoon, a Coast Guard official told The Times: “We were alerted quickly. We really believe we will keep this to a small contained incident.” The city of Newport Beach sent out a tweet around that time saying the spill should dissipate through wind, sun and wave action and was not expected to come ashore.

But by around 8 p.m. Saturday, it was clear the oil spill had the potential to become a major disaster.

Huntington Beach officials and other local leaders announced the closure of beaches and said oil was beginning to hit the coastline. Workers spent the night and morning trying to prevent oil from getting into wetland areas. Early Sunday morning, the last day of the popular Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach was canceled.

The oil had already killed or poisoned untold numbers of birds, fish and mammals, despoiling their habitat for perhaps years to come.

Willsher said Amplify Energy shut down the flow of crude oil to the pipeline suspected of leaking Saturday night. Local government officials overnight said that although preliminary patching had been completed, the leak had not been completely stopped. The company was waiting for divers to complete a thorough inspection to determine whether the leak had been fully stopped.

“My question to the oil company is: If they knew they had a leak going, isn’t there a valve you can turn to keep anything else from going into that pipeline?” said Brimer, the surf shop owner.

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What it was like to be surfing the morning of the Orange County oil spill. In a word: surreal.

As news of the spill spread Sunday, many residents of Huntington and Newport wondered whether it had started Friday.

Neal Shehab, who lives in Newport Shores, also started to smell oil fumes Friday night. “We didn’t know what it was,” he said.

Jogging along the packed Huntington Beach boardwalk Friday evening, Hal Lopez remembers smelling something “kinda like rotten, old meat maybe? I didn’t know what was going on and had to stop running; I have a very sensitive nose.”

The smell of oil was still in the air Saturday afternoon, leaving some residents to surmise on social media that it was the result of exhaust from the air show, which included some of the biggest acts in North America, including the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The oil spill had reached the Talbert Marsh and some environmentally sensitive wetlands areas by Sunday morning.

Local officials said they’ve been working as fast as they can to respond to the leak and said the air show played no role in when residents were alerted.

“I think the situation was evolving,” said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, adding that she thinks it was the right decision to cancel the air show. “I don’t think there was any intentional delay. It’s just a matter of gathering the facts and making a responsible decision given the significant impact that it would have on the economy and the operators.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said 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.”

Oil platforms Elly and Ellen
Oil platforms Elly, left, and Ellen stand offshore from Huntington Beach in this image taken Aug. 27, 2019.
(Sean Greene / Los Angeles Times)
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K.C. Lewis and his shepherd mix, Cooper, who regularly visit the dog beach in Huntington Beach, said he heard talk on Friday and Saturday about “some kind of environmental dump” in the water.

“No one could confirm anything,” the Long Beach resident said. “I scrolled through social media to check for clues. All I saw were news tweets about the spill. And then it clicked. I thought: ‘My God! This is gonna be tough to handle.’”

On Sunday, while his dog chased poodles and retrievers on the sand, he and other pet owners mulled over the possibility of what cleanup could demand of officials and of residents.

“If they warned us earlier, or just gave us a small idea, a lot more people might have stayed out of the ocean and not helped to spread the oil or carry it home,” he said.

Times staff writers Robin Estrin and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.