Oil is washed up on Huntington State Beach after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on Oct. 3, 2021, in Huntington Beach, California. The spill forced the closure of the popular Great Pacific Airshow with authorities urging people to avoid beaches in the vicinity. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches that could end up closed for months as crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.
Divers are trying to determine where and why the leak occurred, but the flow of oil was stopped late Saturday from the pipeline that runs under the ocean off Huntington Beach, according to the head of the company that operates the line.
At least 126,000 gallons of crude spilled into the waters off Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday when boaters began reporting a sheen in the water, officials said.
Some in the wider Bay Area, like the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, are already responding. They sent field teams down to Huntington Beach to help wildlife that have been coated in the crude oil. They are also assessing how many volunteers they need to send for support.
"All of our teams have 'go bags' where items are packed and ready to go," said Eunah Preston, a spokesperson for the network. "There's no hesitation, really."
While the amount of crude that's spilled has raised the eyebrows of experts, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said that'll be the last of it.
“I don’t expect it to be more. That’s the capacity of the entire pipeline,” Willsher said. He said the pipeline was suctioned out and dozens of nearby oil platforms operated by Amplify were shut down.
It was one of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history, shoring up black oil on the strand in Huntington Beach, the town known as Surf City U.S.A. Crews scrambled to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the city's famous beaches could remain closed for weeks or even months.
“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Carr said.
The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules.
Some birds and fish were caught in the muck and killed, said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley. But the U.S. Coast Guard said there was a report of just one duck that was covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Coordination among various branches of government that deal with oil spills has improved over the past decade, according to Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy group.
At first, reports said Cosco Busan spilled 400 gallons, but "we found out about eight hours later it was a 53,000-gallon oil spill," Choksi-Chugh said.
The lackadaisical response in San Francisco's waters led to an overhaul of state oil-spill responses, though some of the changes didn't go as far as advocates had hoped, according to SF Baykeeper.
In the aftermath, oil-spill response plans were developed for the Bay Area and other localities, and communication was streamlined among some agencies. Activists also called for increased investment in quickly training and onboarding volunteers to help clean beaches and save wildlife.
"I believe we are seeing a much better oil spill response due to the time we took after the Cosco Busan spill to really understand what went wrong," Choksi-Chugh said. "When you come up with 200 different ways that oil spill response went wrong back in 2007, you better believe there's going to be improvements."
Much of that cleanup was underway nearly immediately in Huntingon Beach over the weekend.
Crews led by the Coast Guard deployed skimmers and some 3,700 feet of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland in Huntington Beach, officials said.
A petroleum stench permeated the air.
“You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Supervisor Foley said.
The oil likely will continue to approach the Orange County coast, including Newport Beach to the south, over the next few days, officials said.
The oil slick originated from a pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, Foley said on Twitter. Elly is connected by walkway to another platform, Ellen, located just over 8.5 miles off Long Beach, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said people in Northern California should be concerned about Southern California spills because "we are all one coast." Wildlife experts have noted that migratory animals people spot even from the Bay Area, like whales, often swim up from Southern California.
"I'm horrified, of course," Huffman said.
Cosco Busan was somewhat different because the oil came from a ship, versus a pipeline, but "whether it's a ship, whether it's a pipeline, whether it's inland, or coastal, the bottom line is these accidents happen all the time," Huffman said, and the United States' dependence on oil is "no way to power an economy, and we don't have to do it anymore." He said this should be "a wake-up call" for a transition to clean and safer energy.
The Huntington Beach spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.
At a news conference Saturday night, Orange County officials expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped crews could stop the oil before it flowed into 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 Carr said.
The area is home to threatened and endangered species — including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales — as well as a fishing industry and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
“The coastal areas off of Southern California are just really rich for wildlife, a key biodiversity hot spot,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.
The effects of an oil spill are wide-ranging, environmentalists said. Birds that get oil on their feathers can’t fly, can’t clean themselves and can’t monitor their own temperatures, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming through oil or breathing in toxic fumes, she said.
Sakashita keenly remembers the Cosco Busan oil spill near the Bay Bridge, and the havoc it wreaked from beaches and shallow pools to the deepest reaches of San Francisco Bay. She was among the staff that advocated for improving oversight of oil in California after that spill.
This new spill down in southern California is "about twice that size" of the Cosco Busan spill, Sakashita noted.
"A lot of us remember going out and seeing the oil washing up on the shores and just feeling so helpless about what can be done to clean up a spill like that in the Bay, and that same thing is really devastating off of Huntington Beach right now," she said. "It's definitely a horrific reminder that oil and gas and all of the fossil fuels that are being so heavily used right now are just dirty and dangerous, and we need to shift off of that."
KQED's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and Annelise Finney in the Bay Area contributed to this report, as did Associated Press reporters Amy Taxin, Christopher Weber, Felicia Fonseca and Julie Walker.