A major oil spill off the Orange County coast hit Huntington Beach on Saturday night, prompting coastal closures and emergency responses to protect the area’s ecological preserves, wetlands and marshes.
The oil slick is believed to have originated from a pipeline leak, pouring 126,000 gallons into the coastal waters and seeping into the Talbert Marsh as lifeguards deployed floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion, said Jennifer Carey, a Huntington Beach city spokesperson.
Carey said she was not sure exactly where the leaky pipeline was located but it had been patched.
“We classify this as a major spill, and it is a high priority to us to mitigate any environmental concerns,” Carey said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Officials said they won’t know the extent of the damage until sunrise. But photos and videos showed oil on some beaches.
Huntington Beach was closed from the Santa Ana River jetty to the pier.
The Coast Guard received an initial report of an oil sheen about three miles off the coast of Newport Beach about 9:10 a.m. Saturday. Workers moved to shut the pipeline down and use pressurized equipment to retrieve as much oil as possible soon after the incident was reported, said Kate Conrad of Beta Offshore, a Southern California oil producer involved in the operation.
“We were alerted quickly,” she said.
The Coast Guard has established a unified command along with Beta Offshore and California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Supporting agencies are the cities of Long Beach, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
People are being asked not to approach potentially affected wildlife, as “they can cause more harm than good to the animals,” but instead call the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6926, said Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A crew from the network has been mobilized for any needed rescue and rehabilitation work.
“Members of the public should avoid the oiled shoreline, as the area is unsafe and should be cleaned only by trained contractors,” Laughlin said.
Newport Beach resident Kerry Keating said she and other neighbors began smelling a “horrible and strong” odor like tar Friday night, and several people on the Nextdoor neighborhood network also reported hearing a loud boom.
“We are all quite concerned for the marine life,” Keating wrote in an email.
In Huntington Beach, fire officials were deploying booms to block the ocean water from entering the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and wetlands, Carey said. The city has not received any reports of oiled wildlife, but it was difficult to assess at night and crews would have a clearer idea of the extent of the damage Sunday morning, she said.
At a news conference late Saturday night, local officials expressed grave concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped workers could prevent the oil from hitting 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 told reporters.
The incident comes more than 30 years after a huge oil spill hit the Orange County coast.
On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor in relatively shallow water off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude and fouling popular beaches along the Orange County coast. The oil killed fish and about 3,400 birds. The cleanup was completed on April 3.
In 2015, an oil pipeline ruptured north of Santa Barbara and sent 143,000 gallons of crude oil flowing onto beaches and into the ocean. Tar balls from the leak were found as far away as Manhattan Beach.
The spill forced the closure of Refugio and El Capitan state beaches and covered waves, rocky shores, sandy beaches and kelp forests with oil. According to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which was involved in recovery efforts, 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the spill.
A Santa Barbara County grand jury later indicted Plains All American Pipeline on 46 criminal counts, including four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters. The company agreed to pay more than $60 million and change its operations to settle litigation arising from the oil spill.