Wetlands painstakingly created with millions of dollars are the most devastating victims of the Huntington Beach oil spill. The trio of marshes provides rare feeding and resting grounds for at least 90 species of shorebirds.
Whomever shares the immediate blame, it was systemic under-regulation that set the scene for the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responds to more than 150 oil and chemical spills in US waters each year. But earlier this year, a report by the Government Accountability Office warned that the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, responsible for overseeing construction and monitoring of offshore oil drilling, was failing to properly monitor and inspect active pipelines.
An oil spill first reported on Oct. 2, 2021, has released thousands of gallons of crude oil into southern California coastal waters. The source is believed to be a leak in an underwater pipeline connected to an oil drilling platform 17.5 miles offshore. Oil has washed ashore in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach and into coastal marshes. Orange County has requested a federal disaster declaration. Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, explains the scope of this spill.
How large is this spill, and how much coastline is affected?
Reports estimate that about 126,000 gallons of oil have spilled from a ruptured undersea pipeline, potentially affecting 25 miles of coast in Orange County. As a precaution, the state of California has closed coastal fisheries from Huntington Beach to the city of Dana Point, extending out 6 miles from shore.
Orange County also has dozens of popular beaches that millions of residents and visitors use. They generate billions of dollars in revenue for the state’s coastal economy every year.
How does this event compare to other major spills in California?
Offshore oil development always entails some risk of an oil spill. California’s ocean waters have experienced multiple spills over the past 50-plus years.
The largest was the 1969 Santa Barbara offshore oil blowout, which sent more than 3 million gallons of oil onto local beaches. It was a major disaster that helped launch the modern environmental movement.
Other large spills since then include the American Trader tanker spill off the coast of Orange County in 1990, which released 416,000 gallons, and the 2015 Refugio pipeline spill in Santa Barbara County, which released 123,000 gallons from an underground pipeline on land into the ocean.
Offshore oil production presents spill risks from both platform drilling activities and the facilities that move oil from offshore to refineries and storage facilities on land – including undersea and underground pipelines. The vast array of oil and gas infrastructure along California’s coast requires constant monitoring and maintenance to avoid spills like this one.
What kind of technology does the state have to contain and clean up the oil?
Time is of the essence in oil spill response. Responders are deploying physical barriers such as booms and using skimmer boats to contain and clean up oil floating on the ocean’s surface. They also are constructing sand berms in front of wetlands to protect sensitive areas from oil washing in with the tides.
Other cleanup technologies include using chemical and biological agents to help break down and disperse oil in the water column, and possibly burning off oil to help remove it from the water. Aerial reconnaissance will help the Coast Guard and state agencies track the location and scale of the spill.
What possible impacts of this spill are you most concerned about?
I am also concerned about longer-term impacts to sensitive wetland and rocky shoreline environments. Oil spills have a significant impact on our coastal economies, from fisheries to recreational activities, including beach closures.
Offshore drilling is very unpopular in California. How long do you expect it will continue?
I expect that many Californians will see this spill as yet more evidence that the state and the nation should make a swift transition to alternative energy sources, such as solar power and offshore wind. Burning oil and other fossil fuels is one of the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions that are heating the planet and changing its climate.
A children’s entertainer by trade, Janice Priest is used to forcing smiles.
But it’s become impossible to conceal her frustration with how Ford Motor Co. and government agencies have handled the slow-moving public health emergency that prompted her to rush home from the Michigan State Fair to evacuate her family from their house on a quiet Flat Rock cul-de-sac.
That was 12 days ago, when health officials recommended evacuation of 1,100 homes in the community of about 10,000 residents in southern Wayne County.
Priest still has no idea when it will be safe to return.
She celebrated her 53rd birthday last week from the Southgate Holiday Inn Express. That’s where she, her husband and three children have lived from suitcases and eaten microwave dinners to avoid the hazardous fumes that may still be in their house after a gas spill of 1,400 gallons entered the city’s sewers late last month from a pipe at the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant.