Hopes of O.C. businesses, locals and tourists dashed by oil spill closures

A sunbather lies between signs warning visitors of the oil spill on the south side of Huntington Beach Pier on Tuesday.
A sunbather lies between signs warning visitors of the oil spill on the south side of Huntington Beach Pier on Tuesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Orange County coastal communities — where tourism thrives and where more than a million people crowded Saturday to catch the Pacific Airshow — have become relative ghost towns after a massive oil spill caused beach closures and fishing bans with no end in sight.

In the days since 144,000 gallons of oil spilled from a ruptured pipeline near an offshore oil processing facility in federal waters, city officials in Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach have closed their coastlines to the public, while Newport Beach has banned swimming, surfing and all water-related activities off its shores.

Meanwhile, a widescale suspension of all fishing activity, from Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach southward to Crown Valley in Dana Point and extending six miles out to sea was set in place Saturday following a declaration from California Fish and Wildlife officials.

No timeline for reopening has been given, which spells bad news for local enterprises whose stock and trade comes from ocean and the tourism it attracts.

The sands on either side of the Huntington Beach Pier were eerily vacant Tuesday afternoon, aside from a handful of beachgoers who were forced back from beachfront acreage by yellow caution tape.

Dave Wiggins, an employee of the Huntington Pier’s Let’s Go Fishing, said Tuesday business has decreased by about two-thirds at the shop, which rents fishing equipment and sells bait, tackle and beach supplies.

It has been a double whammy over the last week for the store, which had to close during this weekend’s Pacific Airshow because it was in the flight path of the jets, Wiggins said. Many of the shot glasses on a shelf behind the cashier, typically sold for $8 apiece, fell off from the jets’ rumbling and were broken.

Let’s Go Fishing opened Sunday as the final day of the airshow was canceled, but foot traffic is scant.

“It’s shut us down quite a bit,” Wiggins said. “There’s not many people on the beach, so there’s not many people in the stores.”

Huntington Beach’s Main Street muted

On Main Street in Huntington Beach, traffic was similarly light as workers prepared for the weekly Surf City Nights street fair on Tuesday.

Will Walton, general manager and operating partner at Killarney’s Irish Pub, is also concerned about how long the beaches may stay closed.

“Obviously, the oil spill is a little setback,” Walton said. “When people read the news, they automatically assume that all of downtown is closed because the beaches are closed. It doesn’t really make you want to come out here.”

Crew workers search for items to pick up on the south side of Huntington Beach Pier on Tuesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Walton said Killarney’s was hoping to ride the wave of big events on back-to-back weekends — the U.S. Open of Surfing and the airshow — into a successful fall.

“It would have helped us to have a lot more steam going into Halloween and then Thanksgiving,” he said. “But with the shutdown of the beaches … how do we staff? Are there going to be people down here? What does the midweek look like? It could be scary.”

Tour businesses suffer from lack of traffic

Balboa Village in Newport Beach on Tuesday afternoon was also quieter than usual. Nearby waters were placid as boats remained silent in their moorings.

A kiosk where visitors line up to attend whale-watching tours was shuttered, while a nearby boat rental business and the tiny storefront of a parasailing company were likewise closed and unattended.

Newport Landing Sportfishing is closed on Tuesday due to a large oil spill.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Jessica Roame, education manager for Newport Landings and Davey’s Locker sportfishing and whale watching, said this has been the picture of Balboa Village for the last few days. The agency has had to cancel nearly all tours since Sunday.

“We didn’t really see a huge impact until Sunday ... when we noticed there was quite a bit of oil in the area,” said Roame.

“The economic impact of our business being closed for several days is already pretty tough on us given the post-pandemic slowdown,” she continued. "[And] we don’t know how long this is going to go on for.”

Caitlin Aston, assistant manager and dockhand at Boat Rentals of America, said they haven’t seen much impact to their business, likely because the boat rentals are kept inside of Newport Harbor, closed Monday to vessel traffic.

Residents, tourists left high and dry

Among the few beachgoers who ventured out into south county areas impacted by the oil spill this week, many expressed concerns for the impact of the oil spill on maritime activities as well as local marine life.

Visible effects of the disaster were not too apparent on Corona del Mar Beach, much to the relief of local resident Ray Gorman, who on Monday was out walking his dog, Stella.

Gorman first heard about the oil spill Saturday, while watching the Pacific Airshow. A friend passed along the notification via a cellphone screenshot. He recalled the air smelled a little like gas on Sunday but didn’t notice anything else out of the ordinary.

A daily beachgoer, Gorman said it was surprising to learn of the oil spill after such a busy weekend in Huntington Beach.

“Hopefully, [it’s] a wake-up call. I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to see that there may be different ways to do things other than drilling off the shore,” said Gorman. “You had the ocean literally on fire earlier this year and now you have this. I don’t think these things are repairable, and that’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Newport Beach resident Pam Darveaux said she too was at the Pacific Airshow on Saturday when she heard the news. Although she recalled a friend of hers commenting on the smell of oil in the air on Friday, she thought it was likely from the jets flying overhead.

A couple walks along the jetty at Newport Harbor on Tuesday. A boom is stretched along the opening to the harbor.
A couple walks along the jetty at the mouth of the Newport Harbor on Tuesday. A boom is stretched along the entire opening to the harbor as no boat traffic is allowed in or our out.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“When we got back, we got home around 3 p.m. and then I looked at my phone and saw that there was an oil slick, right off the coast where we had been. It’s horrible,” said Darveaux. “I hope they’re taking measures to keep it from being as bad as it might be, but I know we’re going to have repercussions from this.”

Ariel Tweto, who was out for a run on the boardwalk in Laguna Beach, commented on the absence of people on the sand after the city closed its beaches late Sunday evening in anticipation of the oil spill making landfall.

“It’s just eerie, especially yesterday, like the first morning [after the beach closures],” Tweto said. “It was like a ghost town. I was out running around here, and there was no one.”

Clear skies followed a rare Southern California thunderstorm that rolled through on Monday. Some businesses propped up their floodgates for the downpour, but it appeared to be largely business as usual for the Promenade on Forest in downtown Laguna Beach on Tuesday.

Some were undeterred by the beach closures, as a woman was seen tanning in beachwear on the lawn adjacent to Main Beach. An artist showcased several pieces of his work while working on another drawing in the sunlight on the boardwalk, where a street performer also played the cello for passersby.

Jessica Williams, in town visiting from Virginia, was waiting with her kids to hop on a Laguna Beach trolley after finding the access stairway to Shaw’s Cove closed off by caution tape.

“We’re coming out for a family wedding, and we’re staying just up the street,” Williams said. “We were hoping to enjoy the beach.”

While some cautious optimism has been expressed about the scope of harm to wildlife to date, one official said, “We don’t fully know the magnitude of this spill quite yet.”

As men in hazardous materials vests combed the beach for debris, Huntington Beach residents Garrett Blackwell, 24, and Nick Roberts, 26, played a game of catch near the water on the north side of the pier. That was quickly derailed, however, as a lifeguard in a truck came by and asked them to move back, telling them there could be oil particles in the sand.

Roberts, who lives nearby off of First Street, didn’t mind.

“I started looking at the ground and could see little black spots,” he said. “I didn’t even notice that.”

Roberts said his grandfather was sailing his sailboat on Saturday, watching what ended up being the last day of the Pacific Airshow, but he got oil all over his anchor.

“I’m leaning toward getting these [rigs] out of here and not letting them drill anymore,” he said.

Ryan Fagan, of Chandler, Ariz., brought his three boys to the beach on Tuesday. But they only stayed for about an hour, a fraction of the parking time that Fagan had purchased.

“It kind of sucks without the water,” Fagan said. “Today’s a beautiful day, too. I was looking forward to it. I hope they can clean [the oil] up and it doesn’t change anything. I hope the wildlife doesn’t suffer too bad.”

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