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Climate and Environment

The Orange County Oil Spill. Everything We Know So Far

A close-up of oil washed up on Huntington Beach.
Oil is washed up on Huntington State Beach after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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Recovery efforts remain underway after an oil pipeline dumped an undetermined amount of crude oil into the waters off the Orange County coast over the weekend.

Some 130,000 gallons of oil initially were estimated to have entered the waters — although that number appeared to be in question Thursday. That's when authorities said they now believed the minimum amount and oil has released was 588 barrels, not the 3,000 initially reported.

Officials said the pipeline stopped leaking as of Sunday.

The Timeline

Here's what officials have said so far:

  • People in Orange County reported odors as early as Thursday.
  • A phone call from "a good Samaritan" alerted authorities to an oil sheen off the coast of Huntington Beach late on Friday.
  • Coast Guard investigators followed up with the person, but U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Orr said that the conversation was not conclusive.
  • A second report came in overnight Friday, initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), indicating satellites had spotted a potential oil sheen off the Orange County coast.
  • Two hours after sunrise, teams identified oil in the water.
  • It wasn’t until 8:09 a.m. PST that Amplify Energy says it knew about the leak.
  • Amplify officials said there was a leak detection system associated with the platform.
  • On Tuesday, Orange County declared a local emergency.
  • There's now a claims number available for people and businesses that have suffered losses due to the spill: 1-866-985-8366
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Workers attempt to contain oil that seeped into Talbert Marsh, which is home to around 90 bird species, after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

About The Recovery Efforts

Authorities say it's likely 1,500 workers on Orange County beaches is the goal. By Thursday, oil was spotted in San Diego and officials had prepared for that by already partnering with the Coast Guard office there earlier in the week.

Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Teams (SCAT) are going out and assessing beaches and wildlife and reporting back. There are SCAT teams out. Cleanup going from Newport Beach down to Dana Point.

"We do have some indication that this will not be as severe as previously thought," California State Senator Dave Min said at a news conference on Wednesday.

After initially asking volunteers to stay away, by later in the week officials provided details about how to raise your hand to help.
Volunteers need to be 18 or older+ to assist and must be able to lift 25 pounds and abide by Orange County public health Covid procedures.

More details at

How Will The Oil Spill Affect Animals?

Environmentalists are concerned about long-lasting damage to ecologically sensitive areas.

Oil quickly reached an area known as the Huntington Beach Wetlands, where there are a number of marshes. So far, 4,700 gallons of oil have now been recovered.

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Marshes are important because they not only act like sponges and sequester carbon, they help prevent erosion and flooding. They also provide important homes for wildlife, such as fish and migratory birds.

Over the past century, California has lost up to 90% of its marshes. The wetlands impacted by this spill have been carefully restored since the 1980s.

Rocks are coated with oil near Huntington State Beach on October 3, 2021.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

To prevent more oil from coming in, officials have closed off the inlet that allows saltwater into the marsh and said they believed only one marsh, Talbert Marsh, was impacted. They've also begun the process of cleaning the area, literally scrubbing rocks with biodegradable solvents. Still, this oil spill is a concern for all sorts of fauna, from microscopic animals to birds and larger forms of sea life.

So far, scientists have found 19 birds covered in oil; five have died. One, a pelican, had to be euthanized earlier this week. The rest are being cleaned. Also, five snowy plovers, a federally threatened species, in the Huntington Beach area were collected.

When it comes to animals such as sea lions, it's harder to track the negative impacts of such a spill.

Workers attempt to contain oil in Talbert Marsh, which is home to around 90 bird species, on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

Which Beaches Are Closed?

It's pretty confusing. Authorities on Thursday referred to hard and soft closures depending on the location.

Check the latest information before packing up your towels and surfboard:

What About The Impact On Human Health?

Orange County issued a health advisory Sunday for anyone who may have breathed in fumes from the spill or come into contact with either the contaminated water or oil that washed ashore.

Anyone who has experienced either should seek medical attention and and "refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering, etc," says Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Dr. Chau, who is OC's top health officer, added:

"The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill. People may come in direct contact with oil and/or oil products while walking in a contaminated area (e.g., beach). An initial irritation will be obvious. Additionally, contaminants may be absorbed through the skin."

The advisory listed potential symptoms:

  • Skin, eye, nose and throat irritation
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • upset stomach
  • vomiting
  • cough or shortness of breath
Oil floats in the water of the Talbert Marshlands on October 3, 2021.
(David McNew
AFP via Getty Images)

What We Know About The Origin Of The Spill

The three oil platforms closest to the origin of this spill sit approximately 4.5 miles off Huntington Beach and were built in the 1970s and '80s, according to Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher.

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)

A 13-inch split has been discovered in the 17.7 mile pipeline, which transports crude oil from the processing platform known as Elly, according to authorities. About 4,000 feet of the line had also been displaced laterally by 105 feet. There was no additional oil observed coming from the pipeline when it was investigated by divers.

By midweek, knowing the pipeline had somehow moved significantly, investigators looked into a German ship that had been in the area. The owner of the Rotterdam Express said Thursday that the ship had been cleared and sent on its way.

The pipeline, which sits on the ocean floor, is made of 16-inch steel pipe covered in concrete.

Getting oil from the ocean floor to land is a tricky process. Crude oil from approximately 70 wells flows via underwater pipelines to two production platforms, Eureka and Ellen.

People walk along the sand in Huntington Beach. An oil platform is off in the distance.
(Michael Heiman
Getty Images)

From there, the oil is sent to a third platform, Elly, where water and natural gas is separated from the crude oil. All three platforms are operated by Beta Operating Company.

Natural gas is used for energy on the three platforms, and the crude oil product is sent through the underwater pipeline to a refinery in the Long Beach area.

The pipeline to shore, which is about 80 to 100 feet underwater on the ocean floor, was also built in the 1970s and '80s.

Both the pipeline and platforms have been owned by Amplify Energy for about nine years, and the pipeline has undergone regular maintenance, Willsher said at a news conference Sunday.

Recent Maintenance Work

He described the maintenance as "smart pigging and external sonar," adding that the line was "pigged" last week.

A pig is a machine that is run through a functioning pipeline, along with the crude oil, to check the pipeline's integrity. It looks for cracks or holes while moving at the same speed as the crude oil. A smart pig may have additional features, such as GPS or analytical equipment, to better describe the interior of the pipeline.

Willsher did not indicate whether the pigging of the line might have been a cause of the leak.

Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says when she took a boat trip to tour the platforms, they appeared to be rusty and corroded.

"This absolutely should be considered a disaster," Sakashita says, "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."

A long-billed curlew walks through oily water near a containment boom in Newport Beach on October 3, 2021.
(David McNew
AFP via Getty Images)

Legal Repercussions

On October 4, a federal class action lawsuit was filed with local DJ, Peter Moses Gutierrez Jr. listed as the plaintiff. The filing says Gutierrez, who regularly performs on Huntington Beach, stands to lose income as a result of the spill, as will others in the area.

Our friends at Voice of Orange County report that more legal action is likely.

And on Thursday, authorities said whoever’s determined to be responsible for the spill will be paying for everything from cleanup to compensating people for the air show they were forced to miss last weekend.

Helpful Links

For more information from the cities and agencies responding to the spill and cleanup:

In an aerial view, crews work to block oil in the ocean (L) from entering an inlet (R) leading to the Talbert Marsh wetlands on October 4, 2021 in Huntington Beach.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

How We're Reporting On This

Reporters Jill Replogle and Sharon McNary worked on providing updates and background on the oil platforms last weekend. LAist digital producers Ryan Fonseca and Elina Shatkin kept this story updated during the first few days. And editor Brian De Los Santos is working with reporter Jacob Margolis to keep coverage updated.

A person takes photos as crews work to block oil in the ocean from entering an inlet leading to the Talbert Marsh wetlands on October 4, 2021.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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