HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) – Some residents, business owners and environmentalists have questioned whether authorities acted quickly enough to contain one of the largest oil spills in recent California history, caused by an suspected leak in an undersea pipeline that has fouled the sands of famed Huntington Beach and could keep beaches closed for weeks or more.
Dams were deployed to the surface of the ocean on Sunday in an attempt to contain the oil as divers sought to determine where and why the leak occurred. On land, there was a race to find animals injured by the oil and prevent the spill from harming more sensitive swamps.
People who live and work in the area said they noticed a sheen of oil and a strong smell of oil on Friday evening.
But it was not until Saturday afternoon that the Coast Guard said an oil spill had been spotted and a unified command was put in place to respond. And it was not until Saturday evening for the company that operates the pipeline, considered responsible for the leak, to stop its operations.
Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter, said Friday night that “people were emailing and neighbors were asking, ‘do you smell that? “” On Saturday morning the boats were returning to the marina with their hulls covered in oil, he said.
Garry Brown, president of the environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper, denounced an initial lack of coordination between the coast guard and local authorities in the face of the spread of the oil spill.
“By the time he gets to the beach, he’s done a lot of damage. Our frustration is that this could have been avoided if there had been a quick response, ”said Brown, who lives in Huntington Beach.
An estimated 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude escaped into the water and some washed up on the shores of Orange County. Beaches in the city and state of Huntington Beach were closed, and on Sunday evening the town of Laguna Beach just to the south said its beaches were also closed.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said beaches in the community dubbed “Surf City” could remain closed for weeks or even months. The oil created a sliver several miles wide in the ocean and washed up on the shore in sticky black blood cells.
“In a year filled with incredibly difficult issues, this oil spill is one of the most devastating situations our community has faced in decades,” said Carr. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, visitors and natural habitats. “
Some birds and fish were caught in the mud and died, Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley said. But in early Saturday afternoon, the US Coast Guard said there was so far only one red duck covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are under investigation,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The leaking pipeline connects to an oil production platform named Elly, which in turn is connected by a walkway to an oil rig named Ellen. These two rigs and another nearby rig are in federal waters and are owned by Amplify Energy Corp.
Elly started operating in 1980 in an area called Beta Field. Oil extracted from the depths of the ocean and processed by Elly is transported by pipeline to Long Beach.
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said the pipeline and three platforms were closed on Saturday evening. The 17.5-mile (28.16-kilometer) pipeline that is 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 meters) below the surface has been vacuumed so that there is no more oil spill while the location of the leak was being investigated.
Crews led by the skimmers deployed by the Coast Guard set up some 3,700 feet (1,128 meters) of floating barriers known as booms in an attempt to prevent more oil from seeping into areas such as Talbert Marsh, officials said of the 25-acre (10-hectare) wetland.
The smell of petroleum permeated the air throughout the region. “You get the taste in your mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Foley said.
The oil will likely continue to wash up on the shore for several days and will affect Newport Beach and other nearby communities, officials said.
The closure included all of Huntington Beach, from the city’s northern edge to about 6 miles south of the Santa Ana River Pier. The closure came amid summery weather that is said to have drawn large crowds to the Broad Strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow warning tape was threaded between the lifeguard towers to keep people away.
Authorities have canceled the last day of the annual Pacific Air Show, which typically draws tens of thousands of spectators to the city of about 200,000 people south of Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers of the US Navy Blue Angels and US Air Force Thunderbirds.
Huntington Beach resident David Rapchun said he was concerned about the impact of the spill on the beaches where he grew up as well as on the local economy.
“For the amount of oil that these things produce, I don’t think it’s worth it,” Rapchun said. He questioned whether oil drilling was a good idea along some of Southern California’s most scenic beaches, noting that the loss of the last day of the airshow could be a blow to the local economy.
“We need oil, but there is always a question: do we need it there? he said.
The spill comes three decades after a massive oil spill hit the same part of the Orange County coast. On February 7, 1990, the tanker American Trader crashed its anchor off Huntington Beach, dumping nearly 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and approximately 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 out onto Refugio State Beach.
The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called a snow plover, the California tern and the humpback whale.
“The coastal areas off southern California are really rich in wildlife, a key biodiversity hotspot,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The effects of an oil spill are far reaching, environmentalists said. Birds with oil on their feathers cannot fly, cannot clean themselves, and cannot monitor their own temperature, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have difficulty breathing or die after swimming in oil or breathing toxic fumes, she said.
“The oil spill shows how dirty and dangerous oil drilling is and how oil gets into the water. It’s impossible to clean it up so it ends up washing up on our beaches and people come in contact with it and wildlife come in contact with it, ”she said. “It has lasting effects on animal husbandry and reproduction. It’s really sad to see this large oiled sample.
Associated Press reporters Felicia Fonseca in Phoenix and Julie Walker in New York contributed.