The California Department of Justice has launched an investigation into an oil spill that sent up to 131,000 gallons of crude into the waters off the Orange County coast, the state’s top cop said Monday.
Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said his office has not determined whether civil or criminal enforcement is proper at this time.
“As attorney general, I have activated the Department of Justice as resources to help get to the bottom of this in any way we can,” Bonta said during a news conference Monday. “We are focused on the immediate response to the spill, but we also want to know how this happened.”
The U.S. Coast Guard criminal investigations unit and the Orange County district attorney’s office are already conducting criminal investigations into the spill.
Bonta and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) traveled to Orange County on Monday for a briefing by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the Coast Guard and Amplify Energy, the pipeline’s owner and operator, to discuss the emergency response to the oil spill.
“My office is committed to devoting the people and the resources necessary to ensure this environmental disaster is fully investigated, and we will follow the facts wherever they lead us,” Bonta said.
Padilla said it was unacceptable that Californians have been affected by another offshore spill.
“The trade-off between oil production and environmental harm is simply not one we should be making any longer, especially given how fossil fuel emissions are exacerbating the climate crisis,” the senator said. “Already, this oil has seeped into environmentally sensitive wetlands, endangering birds and other wildlife, and forcing the closure of beaches that are the economic engines of entire communities.”
Monday also saw California state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) announce the creation of a special committee tasked with delving into the disaster.
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) will chair the committee.
Petrie-Norris said forming the committee is an important step in guaranteeing officials get to the bottom of what happened and to ensure there’s oversight and accountability at the state level.
“There are so many unanswered questions about this disaster: who knew what when, why was the leak undetected for so long, why was there such a protracted delay from initial reports of a sheen to a response? Alongside our federal partners and federal investigations we will be working to get to the bottom of those questions,” Petrie-Norris said.
Amid the announcements, stretches of sand in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach reopened to swimmers and surfers Monday as cleanup crews continued their work combing the shores for vestiges of oil and tar.
As of Sunday, officials said, 5,400 gallons of oil have been collected from vessels and 250,000 pounds of oil debris have been cleaned from beaches and other areas.
The Coast Guard warned that beachgoers in San Diego and Orange counties should be aware that weather changes and “increased wave action” could increase the concentration of tar balls washing ashore.
Anyone who sees tar balls should contact the Coast Guard’s cleanup teams at email@example.com.
The reopening comes after water quality test results showed nondetectable amounts of oil contaminants in the water, city officials said.
A major oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, Calif., washed up on nearby Orange County beaches, killing fish and birds and threatening local wetlands.
“We understand the significance our beaches have on tourism, our economy and our overall livelihood here in Huntington Beach,” Mayor Kim Carr said in a statement. “It is important that our decision to reopen our shoreline and water be based on data and that we continue to monitor the water quality going forward.”
In the first few days after the spill, officials warned that up to 144,000 gallons of crude may have seeped out of the pipeline, which runs from a processing and production platform called Elly off the Huntington Beach shore to the Port of Long Beach.
But later in the week, a U.S. Coast Guard official said the spill was probably smaller than initially projected, downgrading the leak to between 24,696 gallons and 131,000 gallons.
Authorities believe that a ship’s anchor scraped the pipeline and dragged it across the ocean floor.
The Coast Guard said Friday that the anchor strike probably occurred months ago, and possibly as long as a year ago. A slight crack in the pipeline may have grown worse over time, or may have survived the first strike intact but incurred damage in another incident, officials said.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer on Monday called for an inspection of all pipelines off the county’s coast.
“Every single pipeline in that region needs to be inspected,” he said during a radio interview. “All the companies need to use their underwater video cameras, and they need to certify, under penalty of perjury, that they don’t have any damage to their pipelines.”
The district attorney said he would ensure those responsible are held accountable.
“I am coordinating and working alongside the entire investigative team and working at this point collectively,” Spitzer said. “That’s the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. attorney as lead with the California attorney general and my office coordinating. We all have potential crimes in our jurisdiction and we all want to have a successful set of cases.”
For the last week, the beaches belonged to shorebirds, sand crabs and the yellow-vested cleaning crews emblematic of late of the Orange County coastline. On Monday, hours after city officials reopened the water, a familiar constituency — beachgoers — made a grand return.
Surfers paddled out to catch waves. Children wet their ankles at the shoreline. A man wearing headphones sat on a red towel to draw.
Stella Heumann, 41, sat beneath a striped beach umbrella while her husband, James, and children played with a volleyball on the sand. For the family of five, it was a carefree day at the beach.
“I have no concerns,” Heumann said. “I don’t think they would have reopened the beach unless they were confident it was safe for the public.”
Minutes later, a cleaning crew walked past the family, carrying rakes and clear plastic bags. Last week, the workers were filling the bags with tar balls and oil-covered kelp. On Monday, the bags were nearly empty.
Surfer Monica Dunn, 36, emerged from the water elated, after crude and caution tape kept her away for a week.
“The waves are not good, but it feels good to be in the water,” she said. “I feel alive.”
Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.
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