California oil spill: Authorities investigate if ship’s anchor struck pipeline

Authorities are looking into whether a ship’s anchor struck an underwater pipeline, causing one of the largest oil spills in recent California history over the weekend that closed beaches and continued to threaten wildlife.

The response time was also questioned by some over whether officials acted quickly enough.

Meanwhile, crews continued working to determine where and why the leak occurred, described as an "environmental catastrophe" by a local city leader.

An estimated 144,000 gallons of heavy crude oil spilled into the waters off Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday, Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said Monday. The leak became known when boaters began reporting a sheen in the water. 

The U.S Coast Guard took the lead in the response to the spill, which covers about 5.8 nautical miles between the Huntington Beach Pier and Newport Beach. 

The pipeline and operations at three offshore platforms owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. were shut down Saturday night, according to CEO Martyn Willsher. The 17.5-mile pipeline that is 80 to 100 feet below the surface was suctioned out so no more oil would spill as the location of the leak was being investigated, Willsher added. 

But some residents, business owners and environmentalists questioned whether authorities reacted quickly enough to contain the spill, noting how the oil sheen and heavy petroleum smell were observed on Friday evening but operations weren’t shut down until late Saturday. 

Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter said on Friday evening "people were emailing, and the neighbors were asking, ‘do you smell that?’" By Saturday morning boats were returning to the marina with their hulls covered in oil, he said.

Garry Brown, president of the environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper, decried a lack of initial coordination among the Coast Guard and local officials in dealing with the spreading oil slick.

"By the time it comes to the beach, it’s done tremendous damage. Our frustration is, it could have been averted if there was a quick response," said Brown, who lives in Huntington Beach.

By Sunday, crews were racing to contain the oil, which will likely continue to wash up on the shore for several days and affect Newport Beach and other nearby communities. Carr said the beaches of the community nicknamed "Surf City" could remain closed anywhere "from a few weeks to a few months.''

"In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades," Carr said. "We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats."

Carr described the situation as an "environmental catastrophe" and a "potential ecological disaster."

RELATED: California oil spill: Wetlands may face ‘ecological disaster’ from pipeline failure

Crews led by the Coast Guard-deployed skimmers laid some 3,700 feet of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland. On land, there was also a race to find animals harmed by the oil — which washes ashore in sticky, black globules.

Some birds and fish were caught in the muck and died, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said. But by early afternoon Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard said there so far was just one ruddy duck that was covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. 

"Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated," the Coast Guard said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a petroleum stench permeated the air throughout the area.

"You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air," Foley said.

Boaters who incurred any oil damage to their crafts were asked not to clean the boats themselves since they could spread the oil, but to contact county officials who could refer them to the proper channels for possible reimbursement of cleaning expenses.

In addition to beach closures, officials also canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Air Show in Huntington Beach that typically draws tens of thousands of spectators to the city of about 200,000 residents south of Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The leaking pipeline connects to an oil production platform named Elly, which in turn is connected by a walkway to a drilling platform named Ellen. Those two platforms and another nearby platform are in federal waters.

Elly began operating in 1980 in an area called the Beta Field. Oil pulled from beneath the ocean and processed by Elly is taken by the pipeline to Long Beach.

5299c4a4-Major Oil Spill Fouls Southern California Beaches

Cleanup workers attempt to contain oil that seeped into Talbert Marsh, home to around 90 bird species, after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on Oct. 3, 2021, in Huntington Beach, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Huntington Beach, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Sunday requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County and noting "serious concerns about the environmental impacts of the spill."

"It is imperative that the federal government assist in recovery efforts. Constituents who live along the shoreline are already reporting oil on the beach and strong odors,'' Steel wrote, according to FOX 11 Los Angeles. "Officials are already responding to protect sea life. Dead fish and birds are already being reported on beaches and shorelines."

The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of the Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.

In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.

The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales.

"The coastal areas off of Southern California are just really rich for wildlife, a key biodiversity hot spot," said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.

The effects of an oil spill are wide-ranging, environmentalists said. Birds that get oil on their feathers can’t fly, can’t clean themselves and can’t monitor their own temperatures, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming through oil or breathing in toxic fumes, she said.

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.