One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.
At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach.
“The spill has significantly affected Huntington Beach, with substantial ecological impacts occurring at the beach and at the Huntington Beach Wetlands,” the statement said.
The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules along with dead birds and fish. Crews led by the U.S. Coast Guard deployed skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion into the wetlands and the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
A petroleum stench permeated the air throughout the area, said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.
“You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” she said.
The closure stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier nearly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty amid summerlike weather that would have brought beachgoers to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away.
Officials canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Air Show that typically draws thousands of spectators to Huntington Beach, a city of about 199,000 residents about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of downtown Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
The oil slick originated from a broken pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, Foley said on Twitter. Elly is connected by walkway to another platform, Ellen, located just over 8.5 miles (about 14 kilometers) off Long Beach and operated by Beta Operating Company, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Beta and its parent company, Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp., didn’t immediately return phone messages and emails seeking comment.
Foley said Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery told her that he encountered the oil slick while in a boat traveling back to the mainland from Santa Catalina Island. “He saw dolphins swimming thru the oil,” Foley tweeted.
The Huntington Beach statement early Sunday said “while the leak has not been completely stopped, preliminary patching has been completed to repair the oil spill site,” with additional repairs planned.
The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.
At a news conference Saturday night, Orange County officials expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped crews could stop the oil before it flowed into sensitive wetlands.
“We’ve been working with our federal, state and county partners to mitigate the impact that could be a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said.
The area is home to threatened and endangered species — including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales — a fishing industry and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
“The coastal areas off of Southern California are just really rich for wildlife, a key biodiversity hot spot,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.
The effects of an oil spill are wide-ranging, environmentalists said. Birds that get oil on their feathers can’t fly, can’t clean themselves and can’t monitor their own temperatures, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming through oil or breathing in toxic fumes, she said.
“The oil spill just shows how dirty and dangerous oil drilling is and oil that gets into the water. It’s impossible to clean it up so it ends up washing up on our beaches and people come into contact with it and wildlife comes in contact with it,” she said. “It has long-lasting effects on the breeding and reproduction of animals. It’s really sad to see this broad swatch oiled.”
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