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Questions Swirl Around Cause Of Devastating Huntington Beach Oil Spill

HUNTINGTON BEACH (CBSLA) – Questions continued to emerge Wednesday about what may have caused one of the biggest Southern California oil spills in decades off the Orange County coastline. Watchdog groups are concerned that the bottleneck at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach may have played a role.

Major oil spill in Huntington Beach
Environmental oil spill cleanup crews clean oil chucks off the beach from a major oil spill at Huntington Dog Beach in Huntington Beach Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Environmental cleanup crews are spreading out across Huntington Beach and Newport Beach to cleanup the damage from a major oil spill off the Orange County coast that left crude spoiling beaches, killing fish and birds and threatening local wetlands. The oil slick is believed to have originated from a pipeline leak, pouring 126,000 gallons into the coastal waters and seeping into the Talbert Marsh as lifeguards deployed floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion, said Jennifer Carey, Huntington Beach city spokesperson. At sunrise Sunday, oil was on the sand in some parts of Huntington Beach with slicks visible in the ocean as well. We classify this as a major spill, and it is a high priority to us to mitigate any environmental concerns, Carey said. Its all hands on deck. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The pipeline leak, which was reported Saturday morning, may have spilled up to 144,000 gallons of oil into the ocean waters. The spill occurred in federal waters at the Elly rig, about 4 1/2 miles off shore. The rig is owned by Amplify Energy.

Federal authorities confirmed Tuesday that a section of Amplify Energy's oil pipeline was damaged and moved more than 100 feet along the ocean floor, an indication that a ship's anchor may have caused the spill.

"What they further located was a 13-inch split in that pipe, on the side of the pipe, that is a likely source of release of the oil," Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said in a news conference.

"The root cause of the accident remains unconfirmed at this time," according to a federal document from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's Office of Pipeline Safety. "Preliminary reports indicate that the failure may have been caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear."

The nearly 18-mile pipeline runs from Amplify Energy's offshore drilling platforms to a pump station in Long Beach.

oil spill graphic
A map of the Huntington Beach oil spill. October 2021. (CBSLA)

TIMELINE: Huntington Beach Oil Spill

"This is a terrible tragedy and we're extremely sorry this happened," Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said. "Obviously the cause of this will need to be investigated. But regardless of the cause, we're going to do everything we can to make things right for all of those impacted areas and individuals as quickly as we can."

Environmental watchdogs Tuesday were raising alarms about a possible anchor strike as well.

"I was immediately concerned that there was a possibility that a vessel had dropped anchor or dragged anchor and that had damaged the pipeline," John Amos, president and founder of the environmental group Skytruth, told CBSLA.

SkyTruth oil spill map
An image created by the nonprofit group SkyTruth of the area around the Huntington Beach oil spill. The image uses government databases and satellite to track oil spills. The white dots are all ships near the pipeline, each can be identified and tracked. (SkyTruth)

Skytruth Tuesday created an image which uses government databases and satellite to track oil spills. The white dots are all ships near the pipeline, each can be identified and tracked.

"We could clearly see what looked like an oil slick right along the eastern edge of the image, near the pipeline, and also very close to where all these ships are anchored," Amos said.

John Konrad, a former captain of large ships and the founder of the maritime website, pointed to the unprecedented bottleneck of cargo vessels at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as a potential problem.

"There are too many ships, so they're anchoring in places that are not designated," Konrad said.

"When you have that many ships in a port, the ships have to either anchor closer together, which can be dangerous, or they have to find other places to anchor," he added.

Konrad says the Coast Guard sets guidelines about where ships can safely anchor. He says it is possible that a commercial vessel's crew may not have realized they struck and dragged a pipeline.

"Did he have the right charts?" Konrad asks. "Did this vessel traffic service advise him? Was this an old pipeline that maybe wasn't properly charted? These are the questions we have to ask."

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard are investigating the cause of the spill.

Meanwhile, there are also questions regarding when the spill was reported. Operators of the Elly oil rig waited more than three hours to shut down the ruptured pipeline despite receiving a low-pressure alarm early Saturday morning.

According to the document from the Department of Transportation, workers in the control room of Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Amplify, "received a low-pressure alarm on the San Pedro Bay Pipeline, indicating a possible failure at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. The pipeline, however, was not shut down until 6:01 a.m. Saturday.

Meanwhile, through Wednesday, wildlife rescue crews have found at least 15 oiled birds. The birds are receiving treatment.

(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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