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‘We’re all in this together’: Local legislators join forces in wake of Orange County oil spill

Martin Welcher, chief executive of Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. answers questions.
Martin Welcher, chief executive of Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. answers questions from the media about the weekend’s oil spill off Huntington Beach. Government officials at all levels are marshaling resources to respond to the environmental crisis.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Government officials at the local, county and state level are marshaling resources to respond to an environmental crisis along the Orange County coastline, after an offshore pipeline leak over the weekend spilled 144,000 gallons of oil into the waters off Huntington Beach.

The incident occurred roughly 4.5 miles off the coast at a deep-sea oil processing facility located in federal waters, where a segment of a 17.5-mile pipeline running from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform was breached.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether a large commercial ship set anchor in the wrong location, compromising the pipeline. Exactly when the event took place is still being determined.

Even as those details remain under investigation, legislators are taking swift action. The Huntington Beach City Council in a special meeting Monday adopted a resolution declaring a local emergency for a period of at least 30 days. Council members Eric Peterson and Mike Posey were absent.

City Manager Oliver Chi provided council members a rough timeline of events and an update on the massive cleanup efforts happening in and around the city’s coastline.

He said although residents in Huntington and Newport beaches reported smelling a persistent odor of gas on Friday night, the U.S. Coast Guard didn’t inform city officials until Saturday a possible breach may have taken place.

Although the oil was not expected to reach the shoreline until Monday, Chi said a police helicopter reconnaissance mission Saturday evening revealed a 5.8-nautical-mile stretch of oil about seven miles off the coast stretching from Newland Street in Huntington Beach south to the Balboa Pier.

“At that point, things were starting to feel much more serious,” he said.

The city proactively began employing protection efforts that have continued into this week, including a total closure of beaches along the city’s coastline.

Some 14 oil-skimming boats have been deployed, including four to six vessels actively working to remove oil from the ocean before it hit shorelines at southern locations in Laguna Beach and Dana Point. As of Tuesday, 4,158 gallons of oil had been successfully recovered.

At a mobile incident command post that has been installed at Huntington State Beach, 320 people on the ground have been coordinating cleanup and strategically positioning a collective 8,700 feet — nearly 1.65 miles — of temporary floating containment booms to check the spill.

In Newport Beach, Mayor Brad Avery said officials met with the city’s emergency operations center team Sunday and described local efforts as “up to the moment.” Although city staff are coordinating with state and county agencies, fewer reports of oil washing ashore have been received. Avery attributed this, in part, to the shape of Newport’s coast.

“There’s a knuckle right at Newport Pier. [So], there has been oil that’s come on shore, but not a lot,” he said. They’ve had a couple of small blobs come ... but it’s getting dispersed over time and the main slick is offshore and is headed in the direction of Dana Point. If there’s no more spilling going on, we may get very lucky here.”

As a precautionary measure, Newport Harbor was closed Monday to vessel traffic to prevent the encroachment of oil. Avery said the city remains vigilant, despite observing very little boat activity in the area. While the sands remain open for recreational use, swimming, surfing and other water sports are prohibited and could be for months.

Coastal currents by Monday had carried the miles-long oil slick southward toward Laguna Beach, where small oil clusters had washed up on shore on Crescent Bay and Shaw’s Cove. City officials closed beaches to the public on Sunday, while two contracted oil recovery vessels worked to prevent the spill from moving onshore.

In a citywide release issued Monday, Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said every effort was being made to protect residents’ safety and prevent ecological harm to the city’s Marine Protected Area.

“We have been working nonstop since early Sunday with state and federal officials to ensure that the city receives the resources that we need to protect our beaches,” Whalen said. “We commit to do whatever it takes to make sure that our beaches and tidepools are returned to the pristine quality that Laguna’s residents and visitors expect and enjoy.”

U.S. Coast Guard Port and Sector Capt. Rebecca Ore answers questions.
U.S. Coast Guard Port and Sector Capt. Rebecca Ore answers questions from local and national media about the recent oil spill off Huntington Beach which occurred on Sunday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

County, state response

Government officials at the county and state levels have been working to assist municipalities in relief efforts and to advocate for legislation that could help prevent future catastrophic disasters.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously adopted a countywide resolution declaring a local emergency in the days following the spill. In a post to Twitter immediately following the regular meeting, District 2 Supervisor Katrina Foley announced the move.

“This will ensure that available county resources are available to respond to and recover from this oil spill,” Foley wrote. “I look forward to working collaboratively with the county, alongside our state, federal and local partners to mitigate the damage that this oil spill has on our environment and communities.”

Upon hearing news that, despite containment efforts, the slick was continuing to spread southward from Huntington Beach on its way to Laguna Beach, Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) on Sunday urged President Joe Biden to authorize a major federal disaster declaration for Orange County.

“Federal, state and local officials have been working around the clock to protect residents, the shoreline and wildlife,” she wrote. “It is imperative that the federal government assist in recovery efforts.”

Hours before the supervisors meeting late Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County to help with the clean-up efforts, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“The state is moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment,” Newsom, who visited the coastal cities Tuesday afternoon for a briefing, said in a statement. “As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment.”

Calls to stop offshore drilling

Meanwhile, state and federal elected officials who represent Orange County communities working to pass legislation to end offshore drilling in California say the recent disaster only highlights why such practices should end.

State Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), speaking in a public comment at Monday’s Huntington Beach Council meeting, said he and fellow legislators, Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) and state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange), were interested in pursuing a possible moratorium on new offshore drilling in federal waters, similar to a state-level prohibition that’s been in place since 1969.

“I think it’s about time we get rid of offshore oil drilling,” he said. “The [cost-to-benefit ratio] is clearly not worth it. We see something like this happen every five to 10 years — it’s horrific for our beaches, our environment and our marine ecosystems, and it has to stop.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr, who’s been at the forefront of the disaster since news began to break over the weekend, on Monday recognized the proactive efforts of city staff and public safety officials to protect the city’s waters and wetlands.

She said the support from the community in the wake of the oil spill has been overwhelming.

“It’s times like these when I’m so grateful to be a resident of Huntington Beach. I’m so grateful to serve this community as the mayor — I’ve never been more proud of this city,” she said.

“Our city really made the hard choices to go out and do all of these protective measures before we were even told that it was actually going to hit,” she continued. “We’re all in this together.”

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