Major Spill Washes Crude Oil Onto Southern California Beaches

At least 126,000 gallons of oil have gushed out of a leak in an underwater oil pipeline about three miles offshore

Workers with Patriot Environmental Services mop up oil on the surface of the water at Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, CA on Monday, October 4, 2021.
Workers collect oil from the water's surface at Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, California.  Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

This past weekend an oil pipeline ruptured in the waters off Orange County in Southern California, sending at least 126,000 gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean, the Los Angeles Times reports.

By first light on Sunday, the 13-square-mile slick was already fouling the sands of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, prompting local officials to close a number of popular beaches to swimming and surfing.

"The ramifications will extend further than the visible oil and odor that our residents are dealing with at the moment. The impact to the environment is irreversible," says Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley in a statement.

As cleanup crews rushed to limit the spill’s environmental damage, dead fish and birds washed ashore along with the black, iridescent globs of petroleum, report Neil Vigdor and Melina Delkic for the New York Times.

The cause of the pipeline leak remains unknown as of Monday morning, but Amplify Energy, the Houston-based fossil fuel company that owns the pipeline, says employees noticed the leak on Saturday about three miles off shore and notified the United States Coast Guard, report Joe Sutton and Susannah Cullinane of CNN. The pipeline connects to an offshore oil platform known as Elly.

Though the true extent of the ecological disaster has yet to reveal itself, oil has infiltrated a network of fragile coastal wetlands, including Talbert, Brookhurst, Newland and Magnolia, that are considered critical wildlife habitat, per Louis Sahagun of the LA Times. In particular, these wetlands are an important stop for migratory birds traveling along what is known as the Pacific Flyway—a path taken by birds moving from North America to South America for the winter, according to the LA Times.

Adding to the environmental injury, Huntington Beach’s Mayor Kim Carr tells CNN that the city’s Talbert Marsh has been the target of long-term restoration efforts.

“These are wetlands that we've been working with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the Land Trust, with all the community wildlife partners to make sure to create this beautiful, natural habitat for decades,” says Carr. “And now in just a day, it's completely destroyed."

The U.S. Coast Guard is leading teams deploying barriers called booms designed to corral the oil and prevent it from intruding deeper into these delicate habitats, including the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, reports the Guardian.

As of Monday, the Coast Guard says in a statement that 3,150 gallons of oil have been recovered from the spill by a fleet of 14 boats skimming sludge from the surface. In total, 5,360 feet of boom has been laid out to hem in the slick.

Per CNN, divers inspected the 17-mile pipeline on Sunday and indicated that the leak appears to have stopped. Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher tells CNN the pipeline was “suctioned at both ends to keep additional crude out.”

The last major oil spill to strike this section of coast came in 1990 when the American Trader oil tanker ran over its own anchor and dumped roughly 417,000 gallons of crude oil, per the Guardian. About a hundred miles up the coast, Santa Barbara experienced a similar spill in 2015 when a busted pipeline sent 143,000 gallons into the sea and eventually onto shore in places like Refugio State Beach.

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