Thunderstorms, swelling tides could hamper oil spill cleanup efforts in Orange County

A lightning strike above the South Bay
Lightning strikes over the South Bay on Oct. 4, 2021.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Inclement weather on Monday was posing a challenge to crews scrambling to clean the massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach.

The spill, first reported Saturday morning, originated from a pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. By Sunday afternoon, about 126,000 gallons of crude had gushed into the water, blackening nearby beaches and soiling a 25-acre wetland known as Talbert Marsh.

Officials said lightning, rain and swelling tides could hamper cleanup efforts and create dangerous conditions for workers through at least Tuesday morning.

A lightning bolt strikes the ocean near a lifeguard tower at Bolsa Chica State Beach as a storm passes through on Monday.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
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“We are expecting a chance of thunderstorms,” said Casey Oswant, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, which oversees the Orange County area.

“If thunderstorms develop over the coastal waters or wherever they’re doing their [oil spill] operation cleanup, if it’s outside, they’re going to have to stop operations for safety,” she said.

By midday Monday, showers had already started to develop over coastal waters, with storm cells moving north from San Diego. Rain was reported in Laguna Beach, where evidence of oil washed ashore Monday.

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

The best chance for measurable rain in the area will be Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning, Oswant said, as a low-pressure system moves northeast from the Baja Coast and brings scattered showers, isolated thunderstorms and the potential for lightning.

The National Weather Service issued a beach hazard alert through 8 a.m. Tuesday, warning residents that thunderstorms with cloud-to-beach lightning strikes could pose a deadly risk.

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Alan Reppert, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather, said in a post that the storm also could bring higher swells into the area through Tuesday.

Lightning strikes to the west as seen from Thousand Oaks. Inclement weather on Monday
Lightning strikes to the west as seen from Thousand Oaks. Inclement weather on Monday was posing a challenge to crews scrambling to clean up the massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s possible the increased swells could move the oil spill more and increase the size of it and affect any cleanup,” Reppert said.

Orange County officials have requested a major disaster declaration from President Biden, which would make additional federal assistance available for state and local agencies and individuals affected by the spill.

The low-pressure system also will move into the Los Angeles area, where isolated thunderstorms, lightning and gusty winds are a possibility through Tuesday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

A frontal system could bring more rain into Southern California by Thursday night, while a cooling trend is expected to deliver temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s in Orange and Los Angeles counties as the week progresses.

But the biggest threat remains to crews working to protect wildlife and coastal habitats from the oil, said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Storms could be dangerous for workers on boats and on the beaches, he warned.

“Gusty winds can locally produce higher seas because of winds associated with the storm,” Sweet said. “On a local basis, it could affect the seas, but the main impact would be lightning.”

Calling the oil spill a “tragedy on all fronts,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley urged residents to stay off the beaches and out of the water as crews assess the damage.

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Fisheries in the area were closed as investigators examine any potential effects on fish, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

Oil is expected to wash on shore for several days.