Orange County beaches closed after oil spill off California coast destroys wildlife habitat
Joe Sutton and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
(CNN) — Portions of popular beaches across a swath of Southern California have been closed after a pipeline breach sent thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean and dead wildlife began washing ashore.
The breach, reported Saturday, occurred about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County, spilling the equivalent of an estimated 3,000 barrels — or 126,000 gallons — of post-production crude, local officials said.
Divers have been inspecting the 17-mile pipeline, hoping to find the exact source of the spill, but the leak appears to have stopped, officials said in a news conference Sunday.
Orange County health officials issued an advisory asking residents to avoid recreational activities on the coastline and recommending that people who may have encountered the oil seek medical attention.
The city of Laguna Beach announced Sunday evening that all beaches would close to the public beginning at 9 p.m., while Newport Beach issued an advisory warning people to avoid contact with ocean water and areas of beach impacted by oil.
Sections of the shoreline at Huntington Beach were closed on Saturday, with Mayor Kim Carr on Sunday describing the spill as a “potential ecological disaster.”
“In a year, that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Carr said. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said Sunday that dead birds and fish were washing up on the shore.
“The oil has infiltrated the entirety of the (Talbert) Wetlands. There’s significant impacts to wildlife there,” she said. “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. And now in just a day, it’s completely destroyed.”
The US Coast Guard (USCG) said Sunday night that more than 3,000 gallons of oil had been removed from the water.
“Approximately 3,150 gallons of oil have been recovered from the water and 5,360 feet of boom has been deployed,” USCG said in a news release.
“Fourteen boats conducted oil recovery operations Sunday afternoon … Four aircraft were dispatched for overflight assessments. Shoreside response was conducted by 105 government agency personnel,” according to the USCG.
Cause of leak under investigation
The pipeline is owned by the Houston-based oil and gas company Amplify Energy, its president and CEO Martyn Willsher said at a news conference Sunday afternoon.
Willsher said the company was working with numerous local, state and federal agencies on recovery efforts.
“Our employees live and work in these communities, and we’re all deeply impacted and concerned about the impact on not just the environment, but the fish and wildlife as well,” Willsher said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that this is recovered as quickly as possible, and we won’t be done until this is concluded.”
Willsher said his company notified the Coast Guard Saturday morning when employees were conducting a line inspection and noticed a sheen in the water.
Willsher said the facilities operating the pipeline were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s and are inspected every other year, including during the pandemic.
Willsher said the pipeline has been “suctioned at both ends to keep additional crude out,” and he doesn’t expect more oil to be released.
The cause of the leak is unknown.
Eric Laughin, public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said at a news conference Sunday, “We are still assessing to look for the source and figure out. It doesn’t appear there’s further fuel leaking, but we’re still working on identifying that.”
The federal Bureau of Safety, Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) told CNN that it was assisting in the USCG-led response to the oil spill.
In a statement Sunday, the BSEE said its role was to assist “in identifying the location and source of any spills and provide technical assistance to the Unified Command in stopping the spillage.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Twitter Sunday it was sending investigators to gather information and assess the source of the oil leak.
Impacts on human health
In a health advisory, the Orange County Health Care Agency’s County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said the impacts from exposure to the oil could vary and that anyone experiencing adverse symptoms should contact their doctor.
“Even when an oil sheen may not be visible, dispersed and dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water,” Chau said.
The agency said symptoms of excessive exposure to oil or dispersants could include, skin, eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, dizziness, vomiting or shortness of breath.
“Inhalation of toxic oil vapors or other aerosolized oil compound particles from wind-blown waves can cause these side effects. The elderly, children, and folks with respiratory diseases such as asthma will be more susceptible to adverse side effects from inhaling the oil vapors,” the agency said.