Anxious waiting game as Orange County oil spill threatens beaches, coves

Cleanup crews spread out across the beach as they begin cleaning up oil in the sand in Huntington Beaxh.
Crews spread out across the beach in Huntington Beach to clean up oil on Monday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Shasha stood with his canvas Tuesday off the the sidewalk near Main Beach in Laguna Beach, mournful at how the oil spill was affecting the environment around him.

Shasha is with a group of about 35 painters from across the country who are spending the week in Laguna Beach as part of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn.’s annual outdoor painting event.

He was finishing up a painting of a nearby lighthouse with an empty sandy beach, closed from the oil spill.

“I don’t have any people to paint on the beach, I don’t have any umbrellas on the sand, nothing that gives it any spirit,” said Shasha, 59, of Swampscott, Mass.


“I just don’t want it to be a sad story,” he continued. “I don’t know if anyone wants [to buy] a memento from the oil spill.”

There was much anxiety in Laguna and other Orange County beach communities in the path of the massive oil spill. Oil began hitting Huntington Beach Saturday and Sunday, flowing into ecologically sensitive areas. The plume was moving south Monday, threatening Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove and parts of Newport Beach.

Coast Guard officials are flying over the spill three to four times a day to map the oil’s direction and compare it with tides, currents and winds to project the potential impact to beaches to the south.

“It really is dependent on the prevailing weather conditions, but the oil continues to move in a southerly direction,” said Capt. Rebecca Ore, commander of the USCG Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach.

There were concerns late Sunday oil could hit Crystal Cove, but there were no signs of major damage there so far. In Newport Beach, officials spent the day trying to keep oil out of the sprawling harbor.

Softball-sized clumps have washed ashore between the mouth of the Santa Ana River and 52nd Street. But much of the slick remains about a quarter-mile offshore, city spokesman John Pope said.


In Laguna Beach, officials say roughly golf ball-sized pieces of tar have washed up along Crescent Bay, a beach known for its distinctive cove that runs about a quarter-mile, where Cliff Drive intercepts North Coast Highway, and Shaw’s Cove.

Huntington Beach has been the hardest hit, with oil fouling some marshes and wetlands. Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said she took a flight over the affected area and it didn’t appear that the oil is encroaching as much as previously feared onto the Huntington Beach area, but it could move as far south as the Mexican border.

“As the ocean moves, so goes the oil,” Foley said.

Surveys also found the spill hasn’t penetrated the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

For now, a big effort is keeping oil from hitting coves and tidepools south of Newport Beach.

Jean Fallowfield, who has lived in Laguna Beach for 30 years, was out walking her border collie, Calypso, on Tuesday afternoon, surveying the area for any oil spill damage.

Fallowfield normally runs with her dog on the beach wherever it is allowed by local ordinances, and was angry to see black sand starting to wash up in squiggly lines near Divers Cove, where she learned to dive years ago.

Tuesday was the first day it was calm enough to take her kayak out, but Fallowfield wouldn’t be doing that now.

“Obviously our tide pools are going to get damaged, that we all worked to protect,” Fallowfield said.