A leak in an oil pipeline caused a major spill off the coast of southern California Saturday, sending oil spewing into the local environment, potentially harming wildlife and nearby human residents.
The volume of the spill pales in comparison to some of the US’ largest such incidents, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, although the full extent of the spill won’t be known for several weeks, one local official said.
Here is what we know so far about the California oil spill and its resulting impact on the local environment and nearby residents.
Where is the spill?
The breach occurred about 5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County, local officials said.
The oil spill is the equivalent of an estimated 3,000 barrels — or 126,000 gallons — of post-production crude. The size of the spill was reported to be about 13 square miles, the Coast Guard said Sunday.
By Sunday night, about 3,150 gallons of oil had been removed from the water and over a mile of oil boom — floating barriers designed to contain an oil spill — were deployed, the US Coast Guard said.
When did the leak start?
It’s not clear when the leak began, but the US Coast Guard received a report of an oil sheen off the coast of Newport Beach Saturday at about 9:10 a.m., the Coast Guard said in a press release.
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. The company notified the Coast Guard Saturday morning when employees were conducting a line inspection and noticed a sheen in the water, he said.
Since then, the Coast Guard and Huntington Beach Police Department dispatched aircraft to access the situation, the Coast Guard said. The agency also established a unified command to respond to the spill.
What was the cause?
The cause of the leak is not yet known, and divers have been inspecting the 17-mile pipeline to try to find its exact source.
The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was assisting “in identifying the location and source of any spills and provide technical assistance to the Unified Command in stopping the spillage,” the agency said Sunday in a statement.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it sent investigators to gather information and assess the source of the oil leak.
The pipeline has been “suctioned at both ends to keep additional crude out,” Willsher said, adding he does not expect more oil to be released.
What’s the impact so far?
The oil spill has coated nearby areas with oil, shut down beaches, threatened wildlife habitats and potentially harmed people.
Local governments took steps to keep people away from oiled areas.
Sections of the shoreline at Huntington Beach were closed this weekend, Orange County health officials advised residents to avoid recreational activities on the coastline, the city of Laguna Beach closed its beaches Sunday night and Newport Beach advised people to avoid contact with ocean water and beach areas impacted by oil.
The extent of the ecological damage remains to be seen.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said Sunday 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 (a local) 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.”
Speaking to CNN on Monday, Foley noted the extent of the damage won’t be known for another couple of weeks.
Field teams in the area of the spill have found four birds injured by oil, a number an official said Monday was not as bad as anticipated.
“In our initial assessment of the area, the number of birds in the general area seems to be lower than we had feared,” said Dr. Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian at UC Davis and the director of California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network. “At this point, we’re cautiously optimistic related to the number of animals that might be affected.”
Who is responsible?
Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline, is a small, independent company with 222 employees as of the end of 2018, the last time it reported its staff size in a company filing. Its most recent financial report shows sales of $153 million, with year-to-date losses of $54.4 million through the end of June.
The company was working with local, state and federal agencies on recovery efforts, said Willsher, the Amplify executive.
“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,” he 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.”
The facilities operating the pipeline were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and are inspected every other year, including during the pandemic, he said.
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