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Coast Guard investigating whether ship anchored at wrong location caused California oil spill

A dead fish at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The Coast Guard is investigating whether a large commercial ship set anchor in the wrong location, damaging an oil pipeline and causing a spill that threatens Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and other Orange County coastal cities, an official familiar with the investigation said Monday.

The pipeline was dragged as much as 150 feet by the anchor, the official said. Vessels are given anchor points to ensure pipelines are avoided. Coast Guard investigators are examining whether the ship’s captain was aware of the dragging.

Earlier Monday, Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive of the pipeline operator’s parent company, said that a ship’s anchor striking the pipeline was “one of the distinct possibilities” for the spill.

No additional details were provided.

At the time, the Coast Guard said it was investigating that as one possible scenario, but officials did not present evidence suggesting an anchor could be the cause.

“We have examined more than 8,000 feet of pipe and we have isolated one specific area of significant interest,” Willsher, the Amplify Energy Corp. executive, told reporters. “We did this primarily through [remotely operated vehicles] to this point, but we are sending divers down now to verify what we were seeing. There’s more information to come, but I think we’re moving very closely to the source and the cause of this incident.”

An anchor was the culprit in another large oil spill in Huntington Beach in 1990. An oil tanker punctured by its own anchor released some 400,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean off the beaches in February that year. The spill killed about 1,000 birds and shut down nearly 15 miles of beaches on the coast for three weeks, the state’s attorney general said in a 1999 announcement of a $16-million settlement with the company, Attransco. Cleanup costs reached as high as $35 million.

Environmentalists have long criticized the general safety and maintenance of aging offshore oil platforms and have pointed to those factors as possible causes for the massive leak.

Cargo ships heading to the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach frequently pass through the area where the spill occurred, officials said. During the pandemic, the Southern California coast saw gridlock as dozens of container ships at a time waited to get into the ports. It was unclear, however, how close those containers got to the offshore oil systems.

The spill, first reported Saturday morning, originated from a pipeline running from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. The failure caused roughly 126,000 gallons of oil to gush into the Catalina Channel, creating a slick that spanned about 8,320 acres. The spill has left striations of crude along stretches of sand in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, killing fish and birds and threatening ecologically sensitive wetlands in what officials are calling an environmental catastrophe.

The oil will likely continue to encroach on Orange County beaches and environmentally sensitive habitats for the next few days, officials said.

Coast Guard officials are flying over the spill three to four times a day to map the oil’s direction and compare it with tides, currents and winds to project the potential impact on beaches south of Laguna in the coming days. County and local officials say they’re poised to close more of the coast and the Dana Point harbor, if necessary.

“It really is dependent on the prevailing weather conditions, but the oil continues to move in a southerly direction,” said Capt. Rebecca Ore, commander of the Coast Guard’s Los Angeles-Long Beach sector. “What we’ve seen is oiling just down to Dana Point … and the trajectories indicate that trend could continue if the weather continues in the current fashion.”

Laguna Beach closed city beaches Sunday night after projections showed the spill reaching Crystal Cove by 10 p.m. That beach is now closed, but no oil had been reported along that stretch as of Monday afternoon. Officials say that could change depending on ocean currents.

Just three miles south, in Laguna Beach, residents woke up to clusters of oil washing up along the sand.

Jean Fallowfield, who has lived in Laguna Beach for 30 years, was angry to see the oil making its way onto the beach near Divers Cove, where she often runs with her dog, Calypso.

Fallowfield is concerned about the spill’s impact on the area’s marine life. Many longtime Laguna residents take pride in their unspoiled beaches; it’s the reason so many moved to the area. It’s demoralizing, she said, when an environmental disaster strikes a place everyone works so hard to protect.

“Obviously our tide pools are going to get damaged that we all worked to protect,” Fallowfield said.

“You feel like you’re getting slapped,” she said, by “somebody that doesn’t care as much” to protect the environment.

Larger, golf-ball-sized pieces of tar have washed up along Crescent Bay, a beach known for its distinctive cove that runs about a quarter-mile in length from where Cliff Drive intercepts North Coast Highway, and along Shaw’s Cove.

Two contracted oil-recovery vessels known as skimmers worked off the coast of Laguna Beach overnight to prevent as much of the oil from coming ashore as possible, said Kevin Snow, chief of marine safety for Laguna Beach.

“The entire city is a marine-protected area, which means we have sensitive marine habitat and wildlife here that is protected, and we need resources to protect this unique ecosystem,” Snow said.

Laguna Beach residents have long been advocates for maintaining the natural beauty of their coastline. In 2012, the city imposed restrictions banning fishing offshore and implementing shoreline protections for tidepools and other marine habitats north to Crystal Cove and south to the city’s border with Dana Point. The result has been a resurgence of kelp in the area that officials are concerned might be affected by the spill.

“People call it the California Riviera. It’s just so beautiful,” Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said. “And people who live here, they’ll go and pick up trash on the beach. They’re very protective. They treat it like their own beach.”

Coast Guard officials said they have been working continuously to recover as much oil as possible and prevent the spill from washing ashore. Fourteen boats working Sunday afternoon recovered about 3,150 gallons of oil from the ocean and deployed 5,360 feet of floating barriers known as booms in an effort to protect the coastline, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mark Shasha, 59, of Swampscott, Massachusetts, stood with his canvas Monday off the sidewalk near Main Beach in Laguna Beach, mournful of how the spill was affecting the environment around him.

Shasha is with a group of about 35 painters from across the country who are spending the week in Laguna Beach as part of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn. annual outdoor painting event. He was finishing a painting of the nearby lighthouse with an empty sandy beach, closed due to the oil spill.

“I don’t have any people to paint on the beach,” he said. “I don’t have any umbrellas on the sand, nothing that gives it any spirit.”

A few miles north, Newport Beach officials closed the city’s recreational harbor Monday morning in an effort to stem the spread of the oil, city spokesman John Pope said.

“We don’t have oil in there right now, so a huge priority is keeping oil from getting into the harbor,” Pope said.

Softball-sized clumps have washed ashore between the mouth of the Santa Ana River and 52nd Street. Much of the slick remains about a quarter-mile offshore, Pope said.

Newport Beach has not closed its beaches, but officials have asked people to stay out of the water.

In Huntington Beach, which bore the brunt of the oil incursion Sunday, crews deployed 2,050 feet of booms to try to stop further incursion and protect sensitive wildlife areas, including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve across from Huntington State Beach that is home to dozens of species of birds. County officials also built large sand berms in the area to keep ocean water and oil from continuing to flow into the habitat, which has already been breached by oil. Officials on Sunday requested additional booms to protect the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

A 5½-mile stretch of sand in Huntington Beach from Seapoint Street near the Bolsa Chica wetlands to the Newport Beach city line at the Santa Ana River jetty remained closed Monday as crews continued cleanup efforts.

Along the shore early Monday workers in reflective vests combed through the sand — at times on their hands and knees — scooping up oil and placing it into trash bags.

Teams from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network were on the beach at first light combing the area around Bolsa Chica State Beach and south to Laguna Beach, both in the water and on land, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis.

Officials found three oiled birds Sunday — a brown pelican, an American coot and a duck. The pelican had extensive injuries and had to be euthanized, he said. A fourth bird, a sanderling, was found Monday. There have also been multiple sightings of oiled gulls. The oiled birds were being treated at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, city officials said.

While Ziccardi said it’s still too early to know the long-term effects of the spill on birds and fish, he noted that the network has a more than 50% success rate in returning oiled animals back into the environment.

“California is the model for the world as far as oiled wildlife preparedness and response, and we have the best techniques and the best success of any place in the world,” he said.

Authorities say the timeline for cleaning up the area’s beaches remains unclear.

State wildlife officials announced a ban on fishing or collecting shellfish from Huntington Beach to Dana Point in the wake of the oil spill.

“The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has determined that a threat to public health is likely by fishing in the affected area or consuming fish or shellfish that may have been affected by the spill,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a news release.

Republican U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday urging him to join her efforts in requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County from President Joe Biden. She sent a letter to the president Sunday seeking the declaration, which, if approved, would make additional federal assistance available for state and local agencies and individuals affected by the spill.

Questions also continue to swirl from residents about how long the pipeline was leaking. Newport Beach residents reported smelling tar in the air as early as Friday evening. The Police Department received more than 20 calls about the smell, prompting it to send out an alert saying authorities were checking it out.

During a news conference Monday afternoon, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he was disappointed that Amplify Energy Corp.’s own divers were investigating the pipeline rupture. That task should be undertaken by an independent agency, he said.

“If that is not done independently, that is a travesty,” he said. “The company should not be responsible for leading its own investigation with respect to the hundreds of millions of dollars of devastation that it did to our environment and our economy.”


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