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Climate and Environment

A Major Orange County Oil Spill Closes Beaches And Endangers Habitats

Plastic bags full of oil debris sit on the shore of a channel with a worker in white coveralls and an orange life preserver coils yellow rope.
A worker with Patriot Environmental Services stands near bags of oil collected throughout Sunday morning near the mouth of the Santa Ana River and Talbert Marsh.
(Jill Replogle
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A major oil spill off the Orange County coast now spans 5.8 nautical miles, and has released 126,000 gallons of oil. The slick was first reported shortly after 9 a.m. on Saturday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Oil from the spill had been spotted from Corona del Mar in the south all the way north to the Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, according to officials who spoke at a news briefing Sunday afternoon in Long Beach. Representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Coast Guard, local officials and Amplify Energy, the owner of the pipeline, were among those in attendance.

Capt. Rebecca Ore, Los Angeles-Long Beach sector commander for the U.S. Coast Guard, said clean up efforts are likely to be "sustained and longer-term."

The extent of the damage and the cause remain under investigation but officials said they so far had only one confirmed report of a bird covered in oil.

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Lt. Christian Corbo, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, cautioned that it often takes several days for the impact on wildlife to become apparent.

Officials said they have "containment booms" — basically temporary barriers to contain oil — around the Bolsa Chica wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas near the oil spill.

The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the response effort, in coordination with local authorities and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. To put the amount of oil spilled into perspective, the 3,000 barrels, is about one-quarter the amount of oil spilled in the 1990 Huntington Beach oil spill, when the American Trader oil tanker ran over its own anchor.

What's Closed

A yellow sign with the words "Keep Out" in large red letters is show on the left of the picture. The sign is planted in sand with a body of water in the background, and yellow caution tape is tied around it. The sign also features an image of a swimmer with a red line through it to indicate that no swimming is allowed, and below the image, it reads: "Sewage, contaminated water, ocean may cause illness."
A sign keeps beachgoers off the sand.
(Jill Replogle

  • Beaches from Seapoint Drive south to the Santa Ana River are closed in Huntington Beach for all activity and authorities have asked people to stay away from other beaches
  • The third and final day of the Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach was also canceled due to the spill.
  • No one is allowed in the water in Newport Beach
  • All city and county beaches within the city of Laguna Beach are closed

Newport Beach officials have similarly asked residents to "avoid contact with ocean water and oiled areas of the beach."

Orange County's top health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, issued a health advisory Sunday for anyone who may have come in contact with the contaminated water, oil washed to shore or breathed in fumes from the spill. He advised those individuals to seek medical attention.

“The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill," he said, underscoring that's why authorities have asked people to stay clear of the beaches and hold off on coastline activities including "swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering, etc.”

The advisory listed potential symptoms as:

  • Skin, eye, nose and throat irritation
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • upset stomach
  • vomiting
  • cough or shortness of breath
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Officials have also emphasized that dealing with the oil cleanup will be handled by professionals.
Officials at the Sunday news briefing said they planned to set-up a website to allow volunteers to register to help longer-term clean-up efforts.

At The Scene

A worker on shore wearings a bright orange life preserver, a white hard hat and respirator as he works with another person in a row boat wearing a dark life preserver and similar head gear. Both are in white coveralls. A yellow flexible tube runs from the water onshore.
Workers with Patriot Environmental Services bring in bags of oil collected throughout Sunday morning near the mouth of the Santa Ana River and Talbert Marsh.
(Jill Replogle

At the mouth of the Santa Ana River near Talbert Marsh on Sunday a large black slick was visible from shore as workers from Patriot Environmental Services bagged debris.

The smell of tar was intense.

The wetlands in the area, which encompass more than 100 acres, are known stopping spot for thousands of birds making long migrations from "their nesting grounds in the Arctic to their wintering grounds in South America," according to the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

That makes the location of the spill particularly worrisome. Miyoko Sakashita, the ocean program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told us:

"The coastal zone along Southern California is rich, productive habitat for a lot of things, and it can provide a lot of nursery grounds for a lot of the wildlife. So if you enjoy fish or other seafood, it's going to be contaminated off the coast of Southern California. I believe that spiny lobster season just opened up and you know, all of the the people who like to go fishing and not be able to because the oil is going to poison the fish and shellfish in the area."
Two people in baseball caps stand near the bank of a channel scouring the sky for birds.
Michelle Reyes (left, in reflective vest) and Susan Kaveggia, with International Bird Rescue, look for distressed birds following an oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach.
(Jill Replogle

What We Know About The Spill

A map shows the sites of oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach labeled Edith, Elly, Ellen and Eureka. A red line shows the pipelines connecting the platforms as well as two lines extending from a central point to the shore.
Schematic shows the location of the oil platforms and pipelines involved in Saturday's spill.
(Courtesy Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

Oil rigs on offshore platforms are located in federal waters more than three miles offshore, their names are Eureka, Elly and Ellen, are operated by Beta Operating Company. They are connected by a pipeline and another pipeline conducts the oil to shore. The Coast Guard is investigating if the leak came from one of those platforms or pipelines.

Katrina Foley, an O.C. Supervisor, said Saturday night that she'd been informed that the location of the pipeline breach was connected to "the oil rig Elly."

According to records filed with the state, Elly is a processing platform that handles the production from Eureka and Ellen.

Sakashita has toured the platforms and said when she took a boat trip to view the oil platforms, they appeared to be rusty and corroded.

"This absolutely should be considered a disaster," she said, "but not only that, there should be federal action to stop and decommission all these platforms off of California. They're all just a ticking time bomb waiting to spill oil."

We will continue to update this story as we get more information.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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