- The pipeline breach released more than 140,000 gallons of oil.
- An anchor is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak.
- Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – Authorities could determine as soon as Tuesday the cause of the pipeline breach that spilled up to 144,000 gallons of oil off the Southern California coast, fouling waters and beaches for miles.
A ship’s anchor striking a pipeline on the ocean floor is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said.
Dozens of massive ships are often anchored offshore while awaiting access to local ports plagued by backlogs as COVID-19 and other issues slow the global supply chain.
“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.
Cleanup boats floated a mile long chain of booms to help slow the spread of the shimmering spill that left black ribbons and gobs of oil along the shoreline. Dwayne Brady and his small dog, Killer, watched crews along the beach combat the spread of oil.
“You’d think in this day and age a spill that’s this large would have immediately been detected and stopped,” he said, shaking his head. “This shouldn’t have been this bad. No way.”
The pipeline was supposed to be monitored by an automated leak detection system and control room staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system, part of Amplify’s spill response plan, was designed to trigger an alarm whenever a change in the flow of oil is detected. But how fast it can pick up on those changes can vary according to the size of the leak.
When 10% or more of the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline is leaking, the detection time was estimated at 5 minutes. Smaller leaks were expected to take up to 50 minutes to detect, according to the plan.
Along with the cause of the leak, the criminal and civil investigations will try to determine why it took so long for Amplify to learn of and report the unfolding disaster.
The first emergency call came in Friday at 6:13 p.m., and it wasn’t from Amplify. A ship had noticed a sheen in the water, according to a federal report on the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spill report website.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration then notified the federal response center twice that night of a possible oil spill less than five miles off Huntington Beach, according to updates on the California emergency services website.
Brijesh “Jay” Shesat, a general manager of the Hotel Solarena along the Pacific Coast Highway, said the strong smell of fuel filled the air Friday afternoon. He and others had watched jets practicing and some of Huntington Beach’s annual air show from the roof of the three-story hotel.
“I said that afternoon that something smelled strange,” Shesat said. “I don’t think any of us could have predicted it was this. We all thought it had to be the jets.”
Natalie Simpson, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo specializing in disaster response and supply chain risk, says the company’s own spill response plan says it should be able to detect a leak that amounts to 1% of the pipeline flow within about 50 minutes.
“If what people were smelling on Friday in Huntington Beach was in fact this oil, than more than that would have already been leaked,” Simpson said.
Amplify Energy, however, said in a statement that its subsidiary, Beta Offshore, first observed and notified the Coast Guard of an oil sheen Saturday morning.
Amplify’s spill plan warned that a break in the pipeline could cause “substantial harm to the environment” and that in a worst-case scenario 131,000 gallons of oil could be released from the pipeline. Maximum leakage would occur if a “full guillotine cut” occurred, the plan said.
“I’m just eyeballing a map,” Simpson said. “But it does look that’s about where some are speculating a cargo ship dragged an anchor across” the pipeline.
On Tuesday, city officials said the first oiled birds were being rescued and stabilized at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center. The center was declining donations, saying they might slow down the response.
“All necessary supplies and equipment to support the cleanup effort are being … paid for by the responsible party,” the center said in a statement. “Please be assured we are doing all we can to help the wildlife and environment.”
Shesat said about 10 guests canceled their hotel reservations by Monday afternoon because of the spill.
“We’ve been suffering like other businesses for so long and things were starting to really improve. We thought this was going to be a busy October,” he said. “This is like another round of COVID.”
Leslie Speyer-Ofenberg couldn’t help but feel a sense of rage walking around his beach community just across the highway from where oil was washing up on shore.
“This is what happens when we let energy companies just police themselves,” he said. “This is our mess, all of ours. … This issue doesn’t seem to bother us until something like this happens.”
Congress could step in. The House Natural Resources Committee will review a pair of bills next week aimed at strengthening regulation and oversight of offshore oil drilling.
Some of the provisions include mandating frequent inspections and requiring pipelines to be equipped with a leak detection system as well as requiring offshore drilling operators to report failures of critical safety systems directly to the secretary of the Interior, who would then be required to publicly disclose these incident reports.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency, hopes to phase out drilling by 2045.
“California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis,” Newsom said. “This incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment.”
Contributing: Janet Wilson, The Desert Sun; The Associated Press