California Pipeline Pulled Like ‘Bowstring,’ Coast Guard Says, As Oil Cleanup Continues

The pipeline’s owner alerted authorities about the oil spill off Huntington Beach Saturday. The first reports of a sheen and foul smell were called in Friday.

Cleanup crews and environmental authorities are racing to contain the devastation linked to a large oil spill off the Southern California coastline as new concerns emerge over how the leak was handled in the critical hours after oil started spewing from a damaged pipeline.

The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that about 4,000 feet of the pipeline had been displaced on the ocean floor. Divers found a 13 inch split in the structure, although they didn’t identify a possible cause. No oil was seen oozing from the pipeline at the time of investigation, which noted the structure had been pulled “like a bowstring.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency in Orange County late Monday, saying he was “moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment.”

“As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment,” the governor said in a statement.

The leak was first reported on Saturday off the coast of Orange County’s Huntington Beach by Amplify Energy, a Houston company that owns the pipeline. About 126,000 gallons of crude oil is estimated to have spilled from the 17-mile-long structure, which carries fuel from offshore platforms to land from about five miles off Newport Beach. That amount would fill about one-fifth of an Olympic-size swimming pool but is enough to leave a slick about 13 miles long.

It’s California’s largest oil leak since 2015 and has raised concerns for critical wetlands and coastal habitats. Authorities have reported some wildlife deaths, with oil-coated fish and birds washing ashore, although wildlife groups have said the effects on wildlife so far were “much better than we had feared.”

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife closed a swath of fisheries along the coastline due to the oil spill, saying the pollution was a threat to public health. The closure covers the area from Huntington Beach southeast to Dana Point, the agency said.

Beaches in the region have been closed.

A worker in a protective suit cleans oil Monday in the Talbert Marsh wetlands after a 126,000-gallon oil spill off Huntington Beach, California.
A worker in a protective suit cleans oil Monday in the Talbert Marsh wetlands after a 126,000-gallon oil spill off Huntington Beach, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
An employee of California Department Fish & Wildlife examines a sanderling contaminated by the oil spill off Huntington Beach on Monday.
An employee of California Department Fish & Wildlife examines a sanderling contaminated by the oil spill off Huntington Beach on Monday.
Ringo H.W. Chiu via Associated Press

Martyn Willsher, chief executive of Amplify, said Monday that the company had likely found the source of the leak, suggesting to reporters a ship anchor may have hit the pipeline. The Coast Guard is still assessing if that may be the cause, and the agency is helping with cleanup efforts, using skimmers to contain the spill.

“There is no active leak that we’re aware of,” Willsher said at a news conference. “We are deeply concerned about what we’re seeing environmentally. Whatever needs to be done, we will take care of it.”

The New York Times reports, however, that some experts have expressed confusion about why Amplify wasn’t able to determine its pipeline was leaking more quickly. The publication added that pressure sensors should have gone off when the leak began, and Reuters notes residents reported a sheen and a foul smell beginning Friday (Willsher said the company hadn’t received such reports and notified officials “immediately” after company employees noticed an oil sheen early Saturday morning).

Floating barriers known as booms are used Monday to try to stop further damage in Talbert Marsh after an oil spill off Huntington Beach.
Floating barriers known as booms are used Monday to try to stop further damage in Talbert Marsh after an oil spill off Huntington Beach.
Ringo H.W. Chiu via Associated Press
Oil streaks Newport Beach on Monday.
Oil streaks Newport Beach on Monday.
Ringo H.W. Chiu via Associated Press

“We — the boat — noticed the sheen, immediately contacted the platforms, and the platforms instantaneously started the incident plan,” Willsher said during the news conference. “We instantly, you know, started notifying all the relevant agencies and getting the incident plan in place. It was within that 30 minutes-or-so timeframe.”

The Los Angeles Times added later Monday that state and federal officials had indications that oil was leaking into the sea on Friday evening, about 10 hours before Amplify reported the spill to authorities. The newspaper obtained documents showing the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, a division of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, was told of an “observed sheen” in the waters off Huntington Beach shortly after 10 p.m. Friday.

The Coast Guard added Tuesday that it was aware of the reports on Friday night, although determinations about the spill were “inconclusive” until early the next day. Officials said the agency often receives such alerts and had followed standard procedure before “a full-scale mobilization began.”

The incident is likely to prompt questions about the 40-year-old pipeline and how it was maintained and repaired, the Times said. The Orange County Register reports the incident could result in tens of millions of dollars in fines.