Huntington Beach oil spill is similar in size and scope to 2015 Refugio oil spill

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Clean-up crews work to mitigate the damage in an ecological estuary after a major oil spill off the coast of California came ashore in Huntington Beach, California, U.S., October 4, 2021. Photo by Reuters.

The maximum amount of crude oil that could have spilled into the ocean off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County so far is 126,000 gallons. That’s the estimate by local officials. A huge oil slick has formed, and clumps of oil and tar are coating the nearby coastline.

“To see the environmental impact on our shore is absolutely devastating,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr at a news conference on Sunday. “We’re going to do everything that we can to clean that up quickly and make sure the responsible parties do that.”

The leak is reportedly coming from a 17.5-mile broken pipeline that connects an offshore crude oil processing platform called Elly to a refinery at the Port of Long Beach. 

“It sounds like they've staunched the major flow,” says Sean Anderson, a professor of environmental science and resource management at CSU Channel Islands. “As we're speaking, there are divers looking to make sure that was everything.” 

Although it’s too soon to know exactly how much oil has been released, he describes this spill as similar in size and scope to the 2015 oil spill at Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara. Although that spill started onshore while this one started offshore, Anderson says the oil is behaving in similar ways.

“It's chilling in different baskets [in the ocean], and then little parts of that oil are spinning off little gyres, and they're dolloping into the coasts here and there,” he says. “Some areas are getting hit, other areas are not getting hit, so it leads to confusion amongst the public sometimes.”

In general, he predicts the oil will arrive on sandy beaches and in areas that typically accumulate debris, like harbors, inlets, and estuaries.

“Wetlands are a key concern,” says Anderson. “Bolsa Chica, all the ones down there, we want to seal off the mouth with floating material so that the oil can't get in.”

Beta Operating, a subsidiary of Amplify Energy based in Houston, owns and operates Elly, the platform connected to the pipeline.

“They took over this platform some years back,” says Gustavo Arellano, a columnist at the LA Times. Records found by the LA Times show the company was planning to do new drilling near the site of the leak at the end of this year. 

“We'll see if that's going to happen, though. I'm sure the state is going to have a big problem with their plans,” says Arellano.

Anderson says over the last 40 years, large companies who built and operated these platforms, like Chevron, have been selling them to smaller companies, like Beta Operating, which may not have the budget or resources to properly maintain them.

“Steel in the ocean corrodes. There's a lot of maintenance that has to happen. This is difficult to do for a well-financed company. As we have these smaller and smaller companies, it's even harder,” says Anderson. 

In the case of the 2015 Refugio oil spill, investigators determined Plains All American Pipeline Company had not properly maintained the pipeline. 

“The tube carrying the oil was corroded and paper-thin,” says Anderson. “In this case, we don't know yet.”

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