As millions of Californians descended on Orange County’s famed beaches on a blazing hot Saturday, they had no idea a massive oil spill happened the night before.
Federal and state authorities were aware of the spill by Friday evening, official spill reports show. And National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites spotted an oily “anomaly” mushrooming in inky Pacific waters through the night.
But early Saturday, with winds blowing the slick away from the coast, officials chose not to inform the general public. A military air show in Huntington Beach went on as planned, with an estimated 1.5 million visitors attending. More visitors escaping inland temperatures in the high ’90s flocked to Newport Beach and other prized coastal beaches.
By nightfall, winds had shifted, and so had authorities. Officials told reporters a pipeline had ruptured and it looked bad, with at least 125,000 gallons of crude oil headed straight toward the coast.
The two-mile long spill underscores a disturbing reality with oil spills and other hazardous releases – as many as a dozen a day are reported to emergency hotlines just in California, and the public usually never knows. Some inland oil spills have run for years, attracting little notice and even earning companies who scoop up the gushing oil and refine it millions of dollars.
The delayed notice and scope of the spill infuriated many locals.
“This is 2021. It isn’t like we’re living in the stone ages. We have technology and safety features,” said Dwayne Brady, as he biked along Huntington Beach with his small dog, Killer. “Wasn’t there pressure gauges? Didn’t they detect all that oil pouring out?”
Brady, who has lived in the city for 18 years, questioned why the community wasn’t alerted sooner and why, if the pipeline had leaked that much oil, it didn’t automatically stop.
“Someone needs to be held accountable,” he said.
Experts agree the public should have been notified as soon as federal and state officials knew a large spill was in progress offshore, whether it had reached beaches or not. Spills can be hazardous to people as well as wildlife, they noted.
“It would have made more sense to at least report it publicly and then let people decide if they wanted to go to the beach, and possibly be exposed at the air show,” said UC Irvine professor Donald Blake, an atmospheric chemist who has long studied air pollution, including from oil spills.
Crude petroleum contains a smorgasbord of toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that rapidly vaporize when spilled, he said, including benzene, toluene and xylenes. While the most dangerous spot is at the site of the bubbling rupture, the gases can be carried for miles in the air.
Who knew and when?
When a single drop of oil spills in the ocean off the U.S. coast, it must, by law, be immediately reported to the 24-hour federal National Response Center, the designated federal point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment.
But by the time the first report was made of an oil spill off southern California on Friday, according to a copy of the report obtained by USA TODAY/The Desert Sun, it was already two nautical miles long and 100 meters wide. And the public wouldn’t be told until nearly 24 hours later, after millions of people had gone to nearby beaches on a sunny Saturday.
The first call came in at 6:13 p.m., according to a copy of the federal report on the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spill report website: “CALLER IS REPORTING AN UNKNOWN SHEEN IN THE WATER NEAR THEIR VESSEL IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN.”
Officials at NOAA also notified the federal response center twice in the night that satellites were picking up a large “anomaly” that looked like oil, centered 4 1/2 miles off Huntington Beach, according to updates on the California emergency services website. In all, at least 30 agencies were listed to be notified, including federal, state, regional and local departments dealing with fire, air, land, parks, health, wildlife, water, and utilities.
By dawn, the spill had grown to nearly 3 nautical miles long and up to 7/10 of a mile wide, according to the reports. Estimated amount of oil that had poured into the ocean was 144,000 gallons.
it is not immediately clear from the available official reports if or when Amplify Energy, the company whose pipeline ruptured somewhere between its platform off Huntington Beach and its Long Beach pumping facility, made a formal report.
News reports quoted a company official saying they had notified the U.S. Coast Guard that an oil spill had occurred, after the company observed an oily sheen in the water. The Coast Guard said it received an initial report of an oil sheen at 9:10 a.m. That was 15 hours after the first report was made to the national hotline and dozens of agencies were listed as having been notified by fax.
“Who’s going to get a fax on a Friday night? Who even gets faxes? That report is going nowhere,” said Deborah Gordon, a Brown University professor and senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Gordon, who has studied California oil field and production, said the process illustrates how antiquated emergency response systems in the U.S. are when it comes to hazardous releases.
“Any time there’s a release, any time something leaks into the air, into the water, there should be public notification,” she said.
In last week’s spill, the public was not notified until later Saturday, despite complaints from the public and shop owners in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach about a heavy tar-like smell starting Friday afternoon.
A Coast Guard official referred media calls to a unified incident command spokesman with the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response. He did not respond to requests for comment. Two state and federal reports say winds early Saturday were blowing west northwest, not east toward the shore. Officials may have thought that would send the massive slick farther out to sea. But the breeze shifted, and so did the direction of the massive spill.
Experts said it is possible to clean up and contain an oil spill at night, using bright floodlights, booms that can be deployed beneath waves and even “good” bacteria. But, said Nooshin Behroyan, CEO of PAXON, risks are higher, with more wildlife out and workers less able to see dangerous oil. Weather, swells and other conditions must also be favorable.
By mid-morning Saturday, the cause was “believed to be a leaking 16″ pipeline running from the shore to Platform Elly (33 38.976 N 118 06.540 W) in the pacific ocean, the pipeline has been shut down,” according to one official report.
The report said approximately 3,500 barrels (147,000 gallons) of crude oil might have been released, and added “the material is drifting towards the Newport beach area and is expected to make landfall Saturday evening.”
On Sunday, tarry globs washed ashore and tides pushed oil into fragile wetlands that provide habitat for 90 species of birds and other wildlife. Miles of beach were lined with necklaces of black oil. The last day of the air show was cancelled and the public was politely but firmly asked to stay away. Nearly all of Huntington Beach’s coast was closed, and so was the northern half of Newport Beach’s sands.
On Monday, 10 more petroleum spills were reported to authorities, from the coast of San Diego to a Kern County oil field.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for USA Today California and The Desert Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @janetwilson66
Contributing: Christal Hayes, USA TODAY