Orange County oil spill update: here’s what we know

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As you probably already know – reports on this site, as well as in most of the country’s major news organizations – a massive oil spill spilled off the coast of Huntington Beach on Saturday October 2sd. On Sunday, the crude oil group had headed for shore; and currently, cleanup efforts are underway.

The extent of the damage is currently unknown, but it is clear that it will be a burden that residents of Orange County (and possibly beyond) will face for the foreseeable future. And in the days following the spill, some details surrounding the environmental disaster are emerging. Below, we dive into those details.

When did it start?

Officials said residents of Orange County began to smell of oil as early as Thursday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed on Friday evening that the satellites had spotted a potential oil flicker off the Orange County coast. And on Sunday, oil began to run aground in Huntington Beach and surrounding areas.

One of the few oil rigs off Huntington Beach. Photo credit: Jérémie Klein

What caused the spill?

Officially, it’s unclear what caused the spill at this point. However, early in the week following the spill, significant evidence emerged suggesting that a freighter dropped anchor on an undersea pipeline, piercing it and dragging it along the ocean floor.

The vessel in question is the Rotterdam Express, a 1,000-foot-long German freighter. It was the closest vessel to the pipeline at the time of the rupture. And on Wednesday, investigators boarded the ship for further investigation while it was docked at the Port of Oakland. The company that owns the vessel maintains that it played no part in the breach.

“We are fully cooperating with the authorities at the moment,” said Nils Haupt, spokesperson for Hapag-Lloyd, the company that owns the Rotterdam Express.

Three oil rigs are located 4.5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, which process crude oil and then send it through a 17.7 mile pipeline to a refinery in Long Beach. The pipeline is made of 16 inch steel pipe and is covered with concrete. A 13-inch crack was discovered on this pipeline, and approximately 4000 feet of it had been laterally dislodged by approximately 100 feet.

“The pipeline has basically been pulled like a bowstring,” said Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify Energy Corp., which operates the pipeline. “At its widest point, it is 105 feet from where it was.”

Oil deposits showing on the sand at Newport Beach. Photo: Tom Cozad

How bad is that?

Originally, 126,000 gallons of oil were believed to have been spilled, but this was quickly updated to 144,000. And on Thursday, officials speculated that the spill may be much smaller than the one initially reported.

“There is speculation about 30,000 gallons, but this has not been confirmed,” Orange County supervisor Lisa Bartlett said Thursday. “But that would make more sense,” she said, referring to the amount of wildlife affected.

Regardless of the actual size, city officials have reported that marine life – including fish and birds – has been affected by the spill.

On Tuesday, the town of Huntington Beach reported: “A total of seven planes, 11 boats and 320 people are currently supporting cleanup efforts along the Orange County coast. The Unified Command said it plans to have 1,500 people to support the cleanup efforts by the end of this week.

One of the main concerns is the protection of the region’s wildlife and marshes. To do this, the cleaning teams installed barriers, started cleaning and cared for the affected animals.

“Relief efforts appear to be at full speed,” said Brett Simpson, HB resident and two-time US Open of Surf winner. “It’s obviously terrible for marine life first and foremost, which is the saddest thing.”

Several birds were found covered in oil and some died, according to initial reports.

Barriers were used to capture the oil and prevent it from moving further into waterways and wetlands. Photo credit: Jérémie Klein

What is closed?

All beaches from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach have been closed. (Some beaches at Dana Point have reopened, including Salt Creek, Strands, and Baby Beach.)

Where is he going ?

So far, piles of oil and tar have washed up as far south as San Diego County. And with the closures seen at Newport and Laguna Beach, that suggests the slick is moving south.

It should also be noted that waves and wind can break up oil deposits. And current conditions in southern California are contributing to this dispersion.

“Something we will be watching out for today, and especially early next week, is the impact of high westerly winds and short-lived swell within the Southern California Bay,” said said Schaler Perry, forecaster at Surfline. “In some cases, increased wind and wave energy can help disperse oil in the water column, making it less likely that the large surface oil slick will come ashore. Crossed fingers.”

To learn more about the location and destination of the spill, check out this interactive NOAA map.

An interactive map shows the location of the spill. Source: NOAA

What are the dangers ?

Orange County health officials issued a health notice on Sunday for anyone who may have come in contact with oil in the water or inhaled its fumes. Symptoms of such encounters include:

– Irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat
-Headache
-Dizziness
-Stomach ache
-Vomiting
-Cough or shortness of breath

“The effects of oil spills on humans can be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill,” said Dr Clayton Chau, county health official. “People can come into direct contact with petroleum and / or petroleum products when walking in a contaminated area (eg a beach). Initial irritation will be evident. In addition, contaminants can be absorbed through the skin. Even when an oil chip may not be visible, dispersed and dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water.

Hence the closure of the beaches.

A noxious pool of oil seen at HB. Photo: Gabriel Vargas

How does this compare to past oil spills?

The most recent and comparable disaster was the Refugio State Beach oil spill in Santa Barbara in 2015. During this event, 142,800 gallons of crude oil were spilled into the ocean after a corroded pipeline.

As a result, beaches were blackened for miles, hundreds of animals were injured or killed, and around $ 100 million was spent on cleanup.

Further on, in 1990, another spill occurred off Huntington Beach. The American Trader – a freighter – crashed its own anchor and broke its hull. This incident resulted in the release of 416,598 gallons of crude oil into the water. An estimated 3,400 birds were killed in the spill, countless fish died, beaches were closed and the company behind the accident coughed up $ 16 million.

Even if summer is over, HB’s beaches would still be packed with visitors, which translates into commerce for local businesses. Photo credit: Jérémie Klein

What about the local economy?

Many businesses in Orange County depend on tourism, and when visitors can’t make it to the beach, that business funnel is closed. Not to mention that the COVID-19 pandemic has already choked the bottom lines of many local business owners.

“There is no surfing in Huntington Beach, no tourists,” said Bobby Abdel, partner of Jack’s Surfboards. Shop Eat Surf. “It hurts all businesses here. People are now afraid to visit Huntington Beach.

“This is an ecological and economic crisis for the town of Huntington Beach,” added Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf & Sport. “I feel for all animals and businesses affected.”

So, yes, local businesses are affected.

Signage indicating the closure of the HB pier (with fun waves in the background). Photo credit: Jérémie Klein

When will the beaches reopen?

So far, local authorities have not detailed a timetable for the reopening of the beaches.

“I don’t know when we’ll be back yet, but a few weeks would be my rough guess,” Simpson said. “The waves looked so fun yesterday. We all need to do our part to empower people and take care of our beaches. “

Looking at the Refugio State Beach oil spill for reference, the beaches have reopened two months to the day after they were first closed.

Clean-up crews working on the aftermath at River Jetties. Photo: Tom Cozad

How can people help?

At first, officials warned of the public trying to help; they wanted the response to be managed by trained professionals. But on Wednesday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it was registering public volunteers.

“Call on thousands of volunteers to help with clean-up efforts once conditions are deemed safe,” tweeted CO supervisor, Katrina Foley. “Volunteers will receive four hours of training to prioritize their health and ensure that hazardous materials are disposed of properly. “

In addition, the Surfrider Foundation is mobilizing volunteers to help out once the general public can safely do their part. To be added to this group, complete this form or text “oil spill” to 51555.

And, of course, donations are also needed. Here are some useful links to help you:

–Wetland and wildlife care center

–The Surfrider Foundation

–Pacific Marine Mammal Center

–Conservation Bolsa Chica



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