HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - The ruptured underwater pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach that leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean may have been damaged several months to a year ago, the Coast Guard's lead investigator said, adding that it's unclear when the crack occurred or when oil began seeping into the water.
The revelation marks a major change in the investigation into the cause of the leak, which was first reported last Saturday morning, leading to closures of multiple beaches and harbors and cancellation of a major air show in Huntington Beach.
Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer told reporters Friday that underwater video of the damaged pipeline shows "marine growth" around the 13-inch crack in the pipeline that was left exposed when its concrete casing was ripped away, likely by the strike of a ship's anchor that hooked the line and dragged it 105 feet out of place.
Investigators were analyzing the maturity of the vegetation to give them a clue as to when the pipeline was initially struck and lost its protective concrete casing.
The presence of the marine vegetation on the exposed pipe "has refocused the ... timeframe of our investigation to at least several months to a year ago," Neubauer said.
He said a routine inspection of the pipeline conducted by its owner, Amplify Energy, in October of last year showed no damage.
"We're going to be looking at every vessel movement over that pipeline and every close encroachment" over the past year," Neubauer said.
That data includes satellite images, radio broadcasts and the traffic of vessels. Investigators were also looking into the possibility that a winter storm Jan. 24-25 may have contributed to the positioning of ships' anchors in the area.
Also unclear is exactly when the crack in the pipeline occurred. Neubauer said the pipe may not have ruptured when it was originally pulled out of place and stripped of its concrete casing. Or a small crack may have occurred that gradually got bigger over time, leading to the 13-inch fissure now present in the pipe.
Neubauer also said the pipeline may have been struck multiple times over the past year, and investigators were also examining whether recent earthquakes may have contributed to the damage.
The National Transportation Safety Board will also conduct an investigation that will be coordinated with the Coast Guard to avoid redundancies, said Andrew Ehlers, the chief investigator for the probe.
Last weekend, authorities estimated that as much as 144,000 gallons of oil may have leaked from the damaged pipeline, but officials on Thursday said the actual amount is likely much lower, although there is still no firm number. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore estimated that roughly 588 barrels of oil had spilled, which would equate to about 24,700 gallons. That's being considered a minimum amount leaked, but officials were unsure of a possible maximum number.
Crews responded to the leak Saturday morning, and beaches were quickly closed as authorities realized the size and scope of the oil slick.
On Friday, however, visitors to Laguna Beach were able to return to the beach, but not the shoreline or the water. The county-run beaches in Laguna Beach include Aliso Beach, Laguna Royale Beach, Table Rock Beach, Thousand Steps Beach and West Street Beach. Visitors to Aliso Beach, however, will have to find street parking because the lot there is closed to provide staging for the cleanup workers.
County-run beaches further south at Salt Creek Beach, Strands Beach and Baby Beach within Dana Point Harbor reopened on Thursday, while the harbor itself reopened Friday afternoon. Capistrano and Poche beaches are still closed because of construction.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the part of the beach under that city's control has remained open to provide access to some sand, but not to the water. The state-run beaches are fully closed.
Newport Beach offered some access, with visitors welcome to go on the sand, but not in the water. Newport Harbor also reopened Friday afternoon.
Visitors to the beaches will see the response teams clad in protective gear as they do their jobs and they are discouraged from picking up any oil.
There are more than 1,300 people conducting on-water and shoreline cleanup operations, according to an update provided by the unified command at 7:40 p.m.
There have been 5,544 gallons of crude oil recovered in the water. Crews have collected 13.5 barrels of tar balls and about 232,500 lbs. of "oily debris" has been scooped up along the shorelines.
The response team has deployed 12,060 feet of containment boom.
Meanwhile, clean-up workers were checking San Diego County for oil at Santa Margarita River, Harbor Beach and Oceanside City Beach, Aqua Hedionda Lagoon, Del Mar Fairgrounds and San Dieguito Lagoon, Los Penasquitos Lagoon and La Jolla Shores-Scripps.
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Dana Point, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, on Friday led a letter signed by 77 other congressional representatives urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to make sure the Build Back Better Act continues to retain a ban on any new federal oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Levin is also behind the American Coasts and Oceans Protection Act that would bar any new leasing for oil drilling along the Southern California Coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo County.
Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Norwalk, and Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, also signed on to the letter.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders were pressing the federal agencies investigating the leak for regulatory information on Amplify Energy, the company that owns the "Elly" oil rig and others connected to the ruptured pipeline.
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher insisted the company was unaware of any release of oil into the ocean until about 8 a.m. Saturday, adding that the firm responded and reported the incident immediately.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's Office of Pipeline Safety issued a corrective action order Tuesday, saying workers in the company's control room "received a low-pressure alarm on the San Pedro Bay Pipeline, indicating a possible failure at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday," but the pipeline carrying crude oil was not shut down until about 6 a.m. Saturday.
Asked repeatedly about that timeline during a Wednesday media briefing in Huntington Beach, Willsher said only that the company was cooperating fully with federal and local investigators
"We are working with them, giving them all the transparency and information that we have," Willsher said.
As for whether there was an alarm that alerted crews to a pressure drop, he said. "We are conducting a full investigation of that ... to see if there was anything that should have been noticed."
But he questioned whether there were any signs of alarm.
"I'm not sure if there was a significant loss of pressure," Willsher said, adding that when his company's crews saw oil in the water at 8:09 a.m., an emergency response was initiated.
Willsher said his company was also unaware of any reports of a sighting of oil in the water as early as 6 p.m. Friday.
"If we were aware of something (last) Friday night, I promise you we would have immediately stopped all operations and moved forward," he said.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network reported as of Thursday that 25 live birds have been recovered and 10 have died. OWCN director Michael Ziccardi said some of the birds recovered included seven federally threatened Snowy Plovers, which were expected to survive. The team had to use special traps to corral the birds, he said.
Divers contracted to investigate the source of the leak confirmed that a 4,000-foot section of the 17.7-mile pipeline was moved out of place by as much as 105 feet, and a 13-inch "split" in the line was detected in the displaced section 4 1/2 miles off shore.
Ore reiterated Thursday that the split is the "likely source" of the leak, which has been stopped.
Willsher said the pipeline is a 16-inch steel pipe covered in concrete, indicating it would take a great deal of force to move and rupture it. He said the pipeline was "pulled like a bow string," lending credence to the possibility of a ship's anchor catching and dragging the line.
That possibility gained credence in the federal corrective action order issued to the company's subsidiary, Beta Offshore, on Tuesday.
"The root cause of the accident remains unconfirmed at this time," according to the federal document. "Preliminary reports indicate that the failure may have been caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear."
The federal report states that the damaged pipe is about 98 feet below the ocean surface. The pipeline was installed in 1980.
Officials have established a phone line for claims from residents or businesses affected by the spill. Anyone with a claim was asked to call 866-985- 8366 and use "Pipeline P00547" as a reference.
Residents were asked refrain from trying to rescue any oiled animals, but to instead report injured wildlife by calling 877-823-6926, or 877-UCD- OWCN. Interested volunteers must take a four-hour course to train for clean-up efforts and wear special personal protective equipment. Anyone interested can get more details at calspillwatch.wildlife.ca.gov/volunteer or by calling 800- 228-4544.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife ordered the closure of Southern California fisheries in response to the spill, prohibiting the taking of fish and shellfish from Huntington Beach to Dana Point.
The spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly oil-rig platform, built to process crude oil from two other platforms, which draw from a large reservoir called Beta Field. Elly is one of three platforms operated by Beta Operating Co., which also operates Ellen and Eureka nearby. Elly processes oil production from Ellen and Eureka and is fed by some 70 oil wells. The processing platform separates oil from water.
Elly is one of 23 oil and gas platforms installed in federal waters off the Southern California coast, according to the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Besides Elly, a processing facility, there are 20 others that produce oil and gas, and two are being decommissioned.
The offshore platform system has been linked to earlier leaks, including a 2,000-gallon spill that led to a $48,000 federal fine against the operator for improper calibration of a leak-detection system. The corroded pipeline carried oil, water and gas from Eureka to Elly, the Los Angeles Times reported about the 1999 incident.
The spill was reminiscent of another ecological disaster decades ago. An estimated 3,400 birds were killed when the American Trader oil tanker ran over its anchor and punctured its hull on Feb. 7, 1990, spilling an estimated 416,600 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Huntington Beach.
As a result of the spill, the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center was established March 31, 1998, at 21900 Pacific Coast Highway to help injured and orphaned wildlife including oil-soiled birds. A makeshift facility at that site treated birds injured in the 1990 spill, according to the center's website.
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