Anchoring Accident May Have Caused California Oil Spill

Cleanup operation off Orange County, October 3 (USCG)

Published Oct 4, 2021 10:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

The pipeline that spilled 125,000 gallons of crude into the ocean off Orange County last weekend may have been struck by an anchor from one of the dozens of vessels queued at L.A./Long Beach, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

"These ships are anchored and many are awaiting entry into the San Pedro Bay Port complex - the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach - and . . . it is possible that they would transit over a pipeline," said Capt. Rebecca Ore, Captain of the Port and Commanding Officer at U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach. 

San Pedro Bay is the busiest container port complex in the United States, and it is busier than ever this year. American consumer spending has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and the boxship queue off Long Beach has reached epic proportions. The port complex has repeatedly broken its own records for congestion, and in recent weeks it has routinely had 60-70 vessels anchored or drifting nearby while waiting to enter.

The spill was first reported to the National Response Center on Friday evening. At about 1815 hours, a passing spill response vessel called in to notify the NRC organization of a two-mile-long slick off the coast of Orange County, according to records obtained by the OC Register. At about the same time, residents in Huntington Beach began calling emergency services to report a strong petroleum smell. However, the U.S. Coast Guard's Los Angeles station did not receive word or begin to mount a response until about 0900 hours the next morning. 

As of Monday, the spill has been halted, and cleanup operations are well under way. 14 vessels are involved in oil recovery operations, four aircraft have been dispatched on overflight and monitoring missions, over 4,000 gallons of oil have been recovered and about one and a half nautical miles of containment boom has been deployed. A fisheries closure is in effect for all areas of the coast affected by the spill. 

In a brief statement released Monday, pipeline and platform operator Amplify Energy said that its California subsidiary Beta Offshore has sent a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to investigate and attempt to confirm source of the release. As a precautionary measure, all of its production and pipeline operations at the Beta Field off Orange County have been shut down. Amplify's stock fell by 40 percent Monday, reflecting investor expectations for lost revenue, cleanup costs and penalties. 

Observed wildlife impacts have so far been relatively limited, with isolated fish kills reported on some local beaches and one local wetland polluted by crude oil. A handful of oiled birds have been recovered for treatment. Still, the spill has not improved local perceptions of the oil and gas industry.

"This environmental catastrophe highlights the simple fact that where you drill, you spill. As we are sadly witnessing, when you drill along the coast, when you pipe that oil ashore, our coastlines will bear the brunt of the impacts from such spills," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), who represents Long Beach and parts of Orange County. "As long as these platforms and pipelines remain, our coastal communities remain under threat from potential disasters like we are now seeing. I have, and continue to, fight in Congress to prevent any future drilling in federal waters along our coasts."