STEFANIE DAZIO, MATTHEW BROWN and BRIAN MELLEY / Associated Press
Some of the crude oil that spilled into the waters off southern California from a pipeline was naturally dissolved in ocean currents, a Coast Guard official said Wednesday as authorities tried to determine the extent of the damage.
Coast Guard petty officer Steve Strohmaier said some of the oil had been driven south by currents. Storms earlier in the week could also have helped disperse the oil, which he believes could make it harder to siphon off as it spreads.
“Most of this oil is separating and starting to swim further south,” he said as he escorted reporters aboard a boat to the crime scene. “The biggest problem is the uncertainty, the amount that went into the water. We’re not sure at this point how much has leaked in total. “
The pipeline operator, Amplify Energy Corp., has publicly set the maximum amount of oil spilled at 126,000 gallons of heavy crude. But the company told federal investigators with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that initial measurements only put the total at about 29,400 gallons.
The water and shoreline are still banned in Huntington Beach and some other areas, but the sand is allowed. Beach goers were playing volleyball on the sands of Huntington Beach Wednesday morning as walkers and cyclists passed near the city’s famous pier. A few drops of oil could be seen along the coast, but no odor remained.
Investigators said the leak could have been caused by a ship’s anchor hooking, pulling, and ripping open an underwater pipeline. Federal officials also noted that the pipeline owner did not cease operations quickly after a security system alerted a possible leak.
Questions remained about the schedule of weekend water pollution polluting the beaches and a protected marshland, potentially closing them for weeks along with commercial and recreational fishing, causing great damage to the local economy.
Some reports of a possible leak, petroleum odor and oily sheen on the water off Huntington Beach came Friday night but were not confirmed and the pipeline operator, Amplify Energy Corp., did not report a leak until the next morning. Authorities said.
An alarm went off in one of the company’s control rooms at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday suggesting a drop in pressure in the pipeline, suggesting a possible leak, but Amplify waited until 6:01 a.m. according to preliminary results of a pipeline investigation Shut down the pipeline spill.
It took the Houston-based company an additional three hours to notify the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Oil Spill Response Center, investigators said, further slowing response to an accident that Amplify employees had been preparing for years.
However, Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher insisted the company was unaware of the spill until it saw a glare on the water at 8:09 a.m.
The company’s spill response plan provides for immediate notification of a spill. Criminal charges have historically been brought when it took too long for a company to notify federal and state officials of an exit.
On Tuesday, federal traffic investigators said the pipe split at a depth of about 30 meters and pulled a nearly mile-long section along the ocean floor, possibly from an anchor that hooked it in and caused a partial rupture, federal traffic investigators said.
“The pipeline was essentially drawn like a bowstring,” said Willsher. “At its widest point, it is 105 feet from where it is.”
Huge cargo ships regularly cross the pipeline when heading for the gigantic Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. You will be given coordinates where you should anchor until unloading.
Anchored cargo ships are constantly moving due to changing winds and tides, and an improperly placed anchor weighing 10 tons or more can “pull anything that the anchor is dirty on,” said Steven Browne, professor of marine transportation at California State University Maritime Academy.
There was no evidence that investigators suspect any particular ship was involved.
“We’re going to make sure we have answers to how this happened and make sure we hold the responsible party accountable,” said Congresswoman Katie Porter, a Democrat who heads the Subcommittee on Oversight and Inquiry of the Natural Resources Committee House of Representatives heads. It represents a district a few miles inland from the spill area.
Onshore animal rescuers were pleasantly surprised to find only a few birds covered in oil.
An AP video journalist saw no visible oil during a two-hour boat tour off the coast of Huntington Beach. Pelicans and other seabirds floated on calm water, and four dolphins swam beside the boat.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials defended their decision to wait until Saturday morning to investigate a possible spill, first reported Friday evening – about 10 hours earlier – near a cluster of boats anchored off Huntington Beach.
At 2:06 a.m. on Saturday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said satellite imagery showed the high likelihood of an oil spill. The report was sent to the National Response Center, a Coast Guard manned hotline for dangerous spills.
Residents in nearby Newport Beach had also complained about a strong petroleum stench on Friday night, and police informed the public about it.
The Coast Guard was made aware of a shine on the water by a “good Samaritan” but lacked sufficient confirmatory evidence and was hampered by darkness and a lack of technology to track the leak, Coast Guard Brian Penoyer told The Associated Press.
Penoyer said it was quite common to get reports of oil sheen in a large seaport.
“In retrospect, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at the time,” said Penoyer.
Contributors to this report were Associated Press authors Michael Blood and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Michael Biesecker in Washington, and Eugene Garcia and Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach, California.