Temperatures in Southern California spiked Sunday, but Huntington State Beach was devoid of the umbrellas and beach blankets that normally line the shoreline.
Instead, public works officials were working feverishly to stop the spread of roughly 126,000 gallons of heavy crude oil that leaked from an underwater pipeline over the weekend in one of the largest spills in recent California history.
Authorities said the first reports of a spill off the Orange County coast emerged Friday morning and Saturday morning. By Sunday, barriers were deployed in the water to try to contain the oil as divers sought to determine where exactly and why the leak occurred. Beaches were closed as crews raced to find oil-damaged animals and prevent the spill from damaging more sensitive wetlands.
The oil created a kilometer-wide glow in the ocean and washed ashore as sticky black globules. On Sunday afternoon, strong oil vapors still carried the ocean breeze.
Oil will likely continue to hit the coast for several days, affecting Newport Beach and other nearby communities, authorities said.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said beaches in the community nicknamed “Surf City” could be closed for weeks or even months.
“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging problems, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations our community has faced in decades,” Carr said. “We are doing everything in our power to protect health. and the safety of our residents, our visitors, and our natural habitats. “
The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the Snowy Plover, the California Common Tern and humpback whales.
The effects of an oil spill are very varied. Birds with oil on their feathers cannot fly, cannot clean themselves and cannot control their own temperatures, said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming in oil or breathing in toxic gases, he said.
There were reports that some birds and fish had been trapped in the mud and died. The US Coast Guard said that as of Saturday afternoon there was only one reddish duck covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of contaminated wildlife are being investigated,” the agency said in a statement.
Huntington Beach resident David Rapchun said he is concerned about the impact of the spill on the beaches where he grew up, as well as the local economy.
“For the amount of oil these things produce, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Rapchun said. He wondered if drilling for oil was a good idea along some of the most scenic beaches in Southern California. “We need oil, but there is always a question: do we need it there?” he said.
The spill comes three decades after a major oil leak hit the same stretch of the Orange County coastline. On February 7, 1990, an oil tanker ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and some 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a broken pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil to Refugio State Beach.
The circumstances of the leak are still being investigated. On Saturday night, a 17.5-mile pipeline located 80 to 100 feet below the surface and three offshore oil rigs owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp were brought down, said the company’s CEO, Martyn. Willsher, and the pipeline was sucked so that no more oil would spill while the location of the leak was investigated.
In Huntington Beach on Sunday, Daniel Orr and Peter Boucher, two senior environmental scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, rushed to collect samples from an area stained with black spots. The scientists took samples of sand and water, and unearthed sand crabs that were still trickling under the tide.
“Our role is to study the spill and its impacts,” Orr said, adding that it is still too early to know how much ecological damage the spill will have.