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Climate and Environment

Why The Orange County Oil Spill Is So Threatening To Critical Coastal Wetlands

Two people in a boat skim the waters off-shore near a long barrier floating in the water.
Cleanup workers attempt to contain oil which seeped into Talbert Marsh over the weekend.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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It didn’t take long after the large oil spill was spotted this weekend for concern to set in: the Huntington Beach Wetlands were being inundated with crude oil.

Efforts to restore and maintain the roughly 120-acre chunk of land had long been underway. Since the 1980s, the goal has been to recreate the coastal habitat that offers refuge for native invertebrates, fish, waterfowl and migratory birds.

This work is critical for coastal preservation. Over the last century, California’s lost an estimated 90% of its wetlands which are crucial for healthy ecosystems along our coasts. Not only do they provide habitats for all sorts of life, but they also mitigate erosion and flooding along the coast, and act as carbon sinks, pulling CO2 from the atmosphere.

Now, these functioning wetlands — made up of three marshes Talbert, Brookhurst, and Magnolia — will have to recover from thick and toxic crude oil.

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An aerial image of oil entering the waters of Talbert Marsh in Orange County
This aerial picture taken on October 4, 2021 shows environmental response crews cleaning up oil that flowed near the Talbert marsh and Santa Ana River mouth, creating a sheen on the water after an oil spill off Huntington Beach.
(Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

“We’re devastated,” John Villa, the Director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy said. “Definitely there’s been some progress lost.”

We’re devastated. Definitely there’s been some progress lost.

— John Villa, the Director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy

It looks like it could’ve been worse.

A phone call alerting authorities to a sheen off the coast of Huntington Beach was made by someone Capt. Rebecca Orr, from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, identified as "a good samaritan," later in the day on Friday. Coast Guard investigators followed up with the person, but Orr said that the conversation was inconclusive.

A second report came in overnight, initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicating satellites had spotted a potential oil sheen off the coast of Orange County. Two hours after sun rise, teams identified oil in the water. It wasn’t until 8:09 a.m. PST that Amplify Energy officials say it knew about the leak.

The Orange County Public Works rushed to close off the saltwater inlet to slow the flood of oil making its way into the ecologically sensitive areas.

Absorbent materials have been deployed to try and suck up some of the oil, and rocks will be manually cleaned. The hope being that they can clear enough oil that birds won’t keep landing in it.

What We Know About Immediate Damage

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)
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Some of the damage to sea life was clear right away.

There have been reports of dead fish and birds covered in oil that have yet to be cleaned.

At least eight seabirds have been collected from the coastline. The toxic, sticky substance makes it so they can’t properly regulate their body heat, so they have to be meticulously cleaned before they’re released. One pelican had to be euthanized.

Officials will continue to collect and clean contaminated animals, by bringing them to a facility run by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network in Los Angeles. It could take between 10 to 14 days before an animal is able to be released back into the wild after being cleaned, according to Dr. Michael Ziccardi, the network’s director.

Shoreline teams covered almost 16 miles of beach on Monday to remove oil, Orr said at Tuesday's news conference. The teams identified a number of oil patches. The debris is being picked up, put in special containers and removed as hazardous material. Overflights continue to identify oil on-and offshore. Shoreline assessment teams from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach will identify additional oil that needs to be picked up.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is doing a resource damage assessment, but it’ll be some time before the full extent of the spill is realized.

“What we don’t know is what the net effect is,” Villa said.

The company that operates the three oil platforms closest to the origin of the spill is cooperating with the investigation. Photos, data and other resources are being turned over to authorities, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said.

What Investigators Have Found So far

A 13-inch split has been discovered in the 17.7 mile pipeline, which transports crude oil from platform Elly, Orr said Tuesday. 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.

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

Neither Orr or Willsher would speculate as to what was responsible for the damage to the pipeline.

Here Are Some Of The Long-Term Concerns

Over the next week, scientists will begin the process of figuring out just how compromised the marshes are, including taking soil samples to see how deep into the substrate the oil has seeped. Researchers will be able to document impacts to the ecosystem by comparing comprehensive data from the area gathered both before and after the spill.

“I think we’ve learned from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and even from the Exxon Valdez spill that the impacts of oil spills on wetlands have long term implications depending on how much oil makes it into the soil and how long it stays there,” Christine Whitcraft, a wetland ecologist at Cal State Long Beach said.

If covered in oil and unable to photosynthesize, carbon dioxide- gathering grasses, which also act as important homes for all sorts of life, could die.

Even the tiny cyanobacteria that feed the plants by pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere and making it available for them to feed on, could be smothered, as could crabs and other small animals there.

Larger animals like harbor seals could suffer eye damage and acute toxicity from swimming through and consuming the oil.

The knock-on effects of the oil and the cleanup, which can also be quite damaging, will be felt for some time.

“10 years as a restoration timeline for wetlands is completely reasonable,” Whitcraft said.

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