Inside Look: Touring the OC oil spill area

Aboard one of the Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutters, FOX 11’s Christina Gonzalez made her way along the San Pedro Channel to check out the oil platform Elly.

The ruptured pipeline that released tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Orange County Coast starts out at this oil rig. Connected to another rig called Ellen, the pair is commonly known as the twins, which now stand eerily silent. They have been shut down, pending several investigations into the leak that was first reported Friday.

Gonzalez has spent quite a bit of time underwater at the rigs. A popular spot for Scuba Divers, the cross beams that support the large structures are usually covered with layers upon layers of starfish and coral. Scallops the size of dinner plates can be found at deeper depths and a family of sea lions usually greets divers or tries to steal fish from the boats usually fishing near them.

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But today, no pinnipeds or fishing vessels were seen; there didn’t seem to be any signs of oil, which seems to have moved south. The actual split on the line that is blamed for the spill is miles from of our location, about 5.5 miles off the coast between Seal Beach and Newport Beach Harbor.

What we do see, on our way to and from the rigs, are tankers. Enormous anchored vessels waiting to be allowed into Long Beach Harbor. Investigators are looking at the possibility that the anchor from one of those ships may have snagged, pulled and ripped open the line, causing the spill. It’s entirely possible -- those anchors can weigh over ten tons and are attached to long lines of thick steel chain. But operators of vessels know they can’t anchor around the line. It’s clearly marked, along with other features, on navigation maps. Satellite imagery from the days before the slick was detected may help investigators.

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There is the possibility that a ship could have anchored somewhere else and its anchor shifted, or moved, with a strong change of current. Since the depth of the broken pipe sits at a little less than a hundred feet, there is also the possibility that a smaller vessel could have done part of the damage, a while back, with erosion making the damage worse, and currents expanding the movement of the line breakage.

Exact details on the cause and damage are not known. Sea lions, for example, are not as susceptible to oil as birds, at least not their coats. But their systems can’t process contaminated fish, or globs of ingested oil tar. It will be a while before people can dive in the reefs off Huntington or Laguna, where oil has been detected. Those remain closed, as is fishing in a large swath off the coast. The damage, at least for now, is not as tangible as it is scary. As many as 144,000 gallons of crude oil spilled.

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