A strong gasoline odor. Plumes of oil. And now California’s coastal residents brace for damage
Kyle Grillot for CNN

A strong gasoline odor. Plumes of oil. And now California’s coastal residents brace for damage

The oil spill off the coast of Orange County is a slow-moving disaster that is still hard for many residents to detect with the naked eye.

As officials expanded their efforts to contain it, local residents and vacationers were bracing for impact — scanning a coastline that was still sparkling at many public access points on Monday as they looked for signs of the pipeline leak first officially reported on Saturday and still under investigation.

Like many here, Jessica Johnson of Newport Beach came to the beach alarmed about the potential long-term consequences for the coastline, the wildlife and the ability of Californians to safely enter the water. “We’re just so sad. This is so horrible,” she said.

“Most everyone I know is really upset and just feeling like this is needless,” she added, calling for “bigger protections” to prevent a similar leak. She had brought her two sons and their dog to check the waves for signs of oil, but so far, they could only see globs of tar scattered along the sand.

Her son Jay Johnson, who is 13 and has been surfing for four years, said he was worried it could be weeks — if not months — before it was safe to get back in the water. “I check (surf forecast website) Surfline a lot and it has said you can’t go surfing, because you don’t want to get oil in your lungs. And they don’t know how long it will be until it’s completely gone,” he said.

Many area residents said they were first alerted to the leak when a strong gasoline smell invaded their communities on Saturday. On Monday, divers were inspecting the 17-mile pipeline owned by Amplify Energy that gushed an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Officials later increased the maximum potential oil spilled to 144,000 gallons, according to the city of Huntington Beach, as Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County.

While the leak has stopped, the cause is still unclear, with authorities examining whether a ship’s anchor could have caused it. The company has said there were no notices of a potential leak in the line before Saturday. But California authorities were notified of reports of an oil sheen at the site of the spill more than 12 hours before Amplify Energy reported it to state and federal officials on Saturday morning, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

Miguel Camacho, a 55-year-old rental manager who lives a few blocks from the Newport Beach pier, said he was one of the few people who got a much closer and more unsettling look at the magnitude of the disaster as he returned Sunday from a fishing trip near Catalina Island, about 30 miles southwest of Newport Beach. Camacho said he often goes out fishing with friends for rock cod, yellowtail and bonito in those waters. But as their boat headed back to Newport Beach, they passed through what he described as “giant spots of oil” on the ocean while observing “big chunks of oil” that appeared to be clinging together at the surface. Many in the community are concerned the spill will kill tourism in the area just as businesses are trying to recover from the damage of the pandemic, Camacho said.

Fish and wildlife officials have been focused on rescuing oiled birds, particularly those in the wetlands around Huntington Beach that is a critical habitat for migratory species. While some officials involved in the response said Monday that the impact on wildlife had been less severe than initially feared, they also acknowledged that they were still assessing the damage and that it could be some time before the full consequences were apparent.

While aerial photographs have shown dramatic plumes of oil spreading across the ocean, the area most visibly affected Monday around Huntington Beach was mostly closed off and impassable as officials coordinated the response from beach parking lots. Curiosity-seekers came to scout the still-open stretches of Newport Beach further south, mostly finding the globs of oil on the sand that ranged in size from a golf ball to larger than a softball and occasional sightings of dolphins that dove through the waves not far from shore.

But many of the beachgoers at the southern edge of the area affected by the spill said they had not been following the spill details closely — and some were still going in the water. At sunset in Newport Beach, groups of friends were taking selfies, barefoot on the sand as they watched the rosy glow fade above the water. Near the pier, flimsy 8 x 11 paper signs tacked to wooden stakes said the “water is closed.” But many entrances to the beach in nearby neighborhoods lacked such advisories on Monday afternoon.

Mike McClure, a 46-year-old police officer, and his friend Robert Arnett, 54, who were visiting Newport Beach from Mesa, Arizona, on Monday said it was the intermittent afternoon thunderstorms that had chased families off the beach rather than the spill. McClure noted that he had seen kids in the waves throughout the day, adding that he wasn’t concerned about going in the water after the thunderstorms had passed.

“It seems like you could still go out there and just keep an eye out a little bit,” he said, gesturing toward the ocean. “You can see little spots of black on the sand every five yards or 10 yards, but that’s it.”

“I wouldn’t want them to shut the beach down, because it doesn’t seem necessary at this point,” added Arnett, who said they had made the mistake of picking up one of the balls of the tar on the beach earlier in the day.

Ecological concerns persist as wildlife rescues continue

Farther north, as the Pacific Coast Highway curves along the open expanse of sand in Huntington Beach, blue banners line the roadway welcoming tourists to “Surf City USA.” But on Monday, the entry points to those beaches were blocked and the sand was empty beyond the workers addressing the cleanup.

Nearby, just north of the Santa Ana River, workers in white hazmat suits and helmets monitored seepage from the spill into more than 140 acres of wetlands that stretch along the other side of the highway from the ocean. Gulls and shorebirds gathered in the marshy sand of what is a crucial habitat for migrating birds — and it was there in the Talbert Channel where the effects of the spill were most apparent as the rainbow sheen of oil fanned out across the water. Large dark clumps of black oil had collected around the blue floating partitions placed in the water to contain the spill.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said those protected wetlands, including the Talbert Marsh wetlands, were a key area of concern within the spill, which covers an estimated 8,300 acres — roughly the size of Santa Monica.

Describing the damage to those three wetland areas on Monday, Foley told CNN that “the entire area is saturated with oil.” Farther south, environmentalists are also concerned about pristine area of Crystal Cove State Park with its state marine conservation area — home to bottlenose dolphins, juvenile leopard sharks, tidepools teeming with anemones, snails and striped shore crabs, as well as squadrons of brown pelicans that have expanded their ranks after near extinction.

“This has devastated our California coastline in Orange County and it’s having a tremendous impact on our ecological preserves,” as well as the local economy, said Foley, whose district includes the spill area. She stressed that officials won’t know the damage for another couple of weeks. “We need answers and the public deserves answers.”

Ongoing investigation

Though Newport Beach officials have said they began getting reports from residents about an oil or methane-like smell in the air as early as Thursday and Friday, an executive with Amplify Energy said Monday that the company was “not aware of a leak Friday night.” Martyn Willshire, the company’s president and CEO, told reporters that the company first detected the spill because of a sheen in the water on Saturday and immediately deployed teams to investigate the source. And Coast Guard officials said they received notification of the spill Saturday morning.

However, a division of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife responsible for handling oil spills said it was first notified of an “observed sheen in federal waters several miles off the coast of Huntington Beach” Friday at 8:22 pm PT, according to Hazardous Materials Spill Reports from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and reviewed by CNN.

It was not clear on Monday how long oil had been leaking from the pipeline before the company responded to the leak, and many public officials said they wanted to see a more intensive investigation into exactly when it was first detected.

Willshire said midday Monday that divers employed by Amplify have now been able to identify the area of the pipeline that they believe is the source and cause of the spill, and he suggested that the pipeline rupture could be related to a ship anchor. When asked whether his company had the resources to pay for the cleanup, he said it did: “Whatever needs to be done we’ll take care of it.”

Amplify owns the Elly platform that feeds crude oil into the pipeline about 80 to 100 feet under water. Willshire has said the facilities were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s and that about 70 wells feed oil into the Elly platform. The pipeline is cleaned weekly, he said. Every other year, the company also does tests to determine the thickness and integrity of the pipe, he said, adding that they have “never seen any degradation of the pipeline.”

The response effort is being coordinated through a unified command that includes the US Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and officials from Amplify Energy, as well as city officials from Long Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach. But officials offered few details about the federal and state investigations that are underway — including the extent to which Amplify Energy’s divers are being monitored or directed by federal officials as they investigate the pipeline rupture.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who has jurisdiction for crimes up to 3 miles off the coast, told reporters Monday that he was appalled that divers associated with the company are currently investigating the spill. “The company should not be responsible for leading its own investigation with respect to the hundreds of millions of dollars of devastation that it did to our environment and our economy,” he said.

“We are going to feel the impacts of this oil spill — for generations.”

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