126,000 gallon oil spill causes Orange County beach closures

ORANGE COUNTY BEACHES are set to be covered in leaked oil in the coming days. LA Times

Harrison York | Editor-in-Chief

October 4, 2021

This past weekend, a massive oil spill off of the Orange County coast is threatening local beaches. The 126,000 gallon leak originated from an underwater pipeline, washing up on shores from Huntington Beach to Laguna, already killing fish and birds. The oil is expected to continue moving along the coast for the next few days while efforts to contain the spread push on.

The United States Coast Guard currently believes that an anchor strike is the most plausible cause for the disaster. Along with Beta Operating Company LLC, the company that owns and operates the pipeline and corresponding rig, investigations utilized remotely operated underwater vehicles and divers to look for the exact location of the leak.

“This oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said. “Rest assured that the team in Huntington Beach mobilized quickly, and we are proactively responding.”

Orange County Representative Michelle Steel has sent a letter to President Joe Biden to request a declaration of a major disaster in the area in hopes of securing federal aid.

Covering the surface of the ocean in a slick of about 8,230 acres, the spill reached Talbert Marsh, a coastal ecological reserve of 25 acres. The area is home to a dozen distinct species of birds. Early on, floating barriers were set up to protect the wetlands from the harmful oil as wildlife rescue operations began along affected beaches. 

“Oil spills are mainly known to affect water life by altering the pH and salinity levels,” senior Max Banks, who took AP Environmental, commented on the situation. “Oil spills also affect land animals, flora and fauna alike, because of the harsh fumes given off by the spill.” 

“The spill’s most disastrous effects can be to people as we can be harmed through ingestion of affected marine organisms,” Banks added. Fishing in the affected waters has been limited as the state notifies recreational and commercial fishermen of the dangers.

Newport Coastal Adventure, an Orange County tourism company, was frustrated that local businesses had not been notified about the spill sooner. “Sheen all over the place and miles of it,” one captain for the company told of his experience. “There’s dolphins swimming through the oil. It’s disheartening.”

The owner of the company, Ryan Lawler, said that the oceans had abundant animal life recently, the tours seeing a pod of about 1,000 dolphins on Saturday, along with sea lions and birds. This was “ground zero” of the spill. “I’m concerned about our environment… What’s going to happen with our marine life and not to mention the fishing aspects, the lobster guys,” Lawler said. 

With oil spills, the effects on marine life are expected several days after the initial event, and workers are preparing for a long cleanup process. Arrangements are being made for whales and dolphins to be transported to SeaWorld San Diego, which offers large tanks for the mammals. The facility has a designated center for animal victims of soil spills, last used in 2015 in response to an oil spill in Santa Barbara.

HUNTINGTON BEACH is hit on Sunday with waves of crude oil. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The damage from the spill is going to be long-lasting for both wildlife and businesses that rely on the ocean. In the coming weeks, the Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is planning to look into the issue, investigators from his office already being assigned to it. Beta Operating Company LLC, which is a subsidiary of Houston-based Amplify Energy, has had 125 incidents of non-compliance in the past 11 years, some of which have led to employee injuries.

“The company should absolutely face consequences for their actions,” senior Madeline McDonald said. “Our ocean is a common resource and if regulations and expectations are not strictly set in place, this shared natural space will face serious degradation which would have extreme implications on our ecosystems and economy alike.”

In response to the situation, the cities of Laguna and Huntington Beach closed public access to the water over the weekend. Newport Beach issued a warning advising people to avoid contact with the ocean and parts of the shore affected by the spill. After being exposed to oil, effects include skin and eye irritation as well as headaches and vomiting. Children and the elderly are at a higher risk for more serious illness.

While beaches in San Clemente remain open, ocean currents and wind patterns may direct the spill down the coast. The OC Health Care Agency is assessing water quality and the situation is developing.

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