A pipeline failure off the coast of Orange County, Calif., on Saturday caused at least 126,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean, creating a 13-square-mile slick that continued to grow on Sunday, officials said.
Dead fish and birds had already begun to wash ashore in some places as cleanup crews raced to try to contain the spill, which created a slick that extended from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach.
The spill prompted officials to close the beaches in Huntington Beach, where the third day of the annual Pacific Airshow was canceled on Sunday, a day after an estimated 1.5 million people had gathered on the oceanfront to watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds.
Officials said on Sunday morning that they were assessing the extent of the damage as oil continued to leak into the water. Mayor Kim Carr of Huntington Beach said at a news conference on Sunday afternoon that city officials had not received confirmation that the spill had been capped.
The spill, Ms. Carr said, was “one of the most devastating situations our community has dealt with in decades.”
It was not immediately clear what had caused the leak, which officials said occurred three miles off the coast of Newport Beach and was connected to an offshore oil platform operated by Beta Offshore.
The beaches in Huntington Beach will be closed until further notice, Ms. Carr said on Sunday afternoon, adding that it was too early to say how long they would be off limits.
The cleanup efforts were being led by the Coast Guard, while in Huntington Beach the local response was focused in part on “preventing an ecological disaster by mitigating the impacts of the oil on our precious wetlands and wildlife,” Ms. Carr said.
She said that “the responsible parties” to blame for the spill should “do everything possible to rectify this environmental catastrophe.” She added that officials were looking at measures “to make sure that they are held accountable for this.”
Earlier on Sunday, Ms. Carr said that the equivalent of 3,000 barrels of postproduction crude oil had spilled into the ocean since the situation was initially reported around 9 a.m. local time on Saturday. More than 2,000 feet of booms had been deployed to try to contain the slick, Ms. Carr said.
“Right now, we’re advising people to stay out of the water,” Ms. Carr said.
A spokeswoman for Beta Offshore did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday morning. She told The Los Angeles Times that workers quickly shut the pipeline down and used pressurized equipment to retrieve as much oil as possible on Saturday after the spill was reported.
The oil slick appeared to infiltrate the Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve across from Huntington State Beach that is home to dozens of species of birds, officials said.
“The impact to the environment is irreversible,” Katrina Foley, a supervisor for Orange County, said at the news conference on Saturday night.
Eric McCoy, the marine safety chief for the Huntington Beach Fire Department, said on Saturday that officials used a plane to survey the size and location of the slick.
“Obviously the potential for significant environmental damage still exists,” Chief McCoy said at the news conference, pointing out that the U.S. Coast Guard had classified the slick as a “major spill.”
In a letter on Sunday, Representative Michelle Steel, a Republican who represents much of Orange County, asked President Biden to issue a major disaster declaration in response to the spill.
“It is imperative that the Federal Government assist in recovery efforts,” Ms. Steel wrote. “Constituents who live along the shoreline are already reporting oil on the beach and strong odors. Dead fish and birds are already being reported on beaches and shorelines.”
The Coast Guard did not offer new details on Sunday, but it said in a joint statement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Saturday that the “cause of the spill, volume and type of oil are under investigation.” The agencies advised the public that they did not need volunteers to help with the cleanup, saying that it could hinder the response.
The initial report of the spill came early Saturday morning, the Coast Guard said.
Officials in Newport Beach said in a in a statement on Sunday that oil had been detected along the shoreline, and they urged people to avoid contact with ocean water and oiled areas of the beach.
“Unfortunately, the size and potential impact of this oil spill make it necessary for people to stay out of the water and avoid contact with the oil,” Mayor Brad Avery of Newport Beach said in the statement, adding that the city’s “top priority is to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors during the cleanup effort.”
Environmental groups said that the spill underscored the need for the state of California to move away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy.
“The hundred-thousand of gallons of oil that spilled into the ocean near Huntington Beach provide a stark and dark reminder that oil is dirty, dangerous, and can make our air and water too toxic for life,” Laura Deehan, the state director of Environment California, said in a statement on Sunday.
The spill was not the first of its kind to imperil California’s coastline. In 2015, the Refugio spill near Santa Barbara, the worst in decades for the state, sent more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilling mostly into the ocean after an onshore pipeline ruptured. A $22 million settlement was finalized in October 2020 to restore natural resources damaged by the spill.
And in 2007, a ship that swiped a support on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge sent nearly 60,000 gallons into the water, the worst spill in that area in decades.
A three-million-gallon spill off Santa Barbara in 1969 has been credited with helping to set off the modern-day environmental movement. Environmentalists point out that oil spills can kill thousands of animals, cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up and contaminate beaches for months.
Cottie Petrie-Norris, a state assemblywoman who represents part of Huntington Beach, said on Saturday that the spill was troubling.
“Across all of our partners, we recognize the gravity of this situation,” she said. “We are and will continue to fight this with all of our collective resources.”