Records show slow response to report of California oil spill
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) – The U.S. Coast Guard received the first report of a potential oil spill off the coast of Southern California more than 12 hours before a company reported the major leak in its pipeline and began a clean-up operation, records show.
Reports of oil spills reviewed Monday by The Associated Press raise questions about the Coast Guard’s response to one of the state’s largest recent oil spills and how quickly Amplify Energy, the company that operates three offshore platforms and the pipeline, realized that it had a problem and notified authorities.
Two early calls regarding the spillage were made to the National Response Center, which is manned by the Coast Guard and notifying other authorities of disasters for a quick response. The first came from an anchored ship that noticed a sheen on the water, and the second, six hours later, from a federal agency that reported a possible oil spill on satellite imagery, according to reports from the California Bureau of Emergency Services.
The leak sent up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude oil into the ocean off Huntington Beach, then washed it onto miles of beaches and protected marshland. The beaches could be closed for weeks or more, a big blow to the local economy. Inshore fishing in the area is closed to commercial and recreational fishing.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County and instructed state authorities “to take immediate and aggressive action to eliminate and mitigate the effects of the spill.”
Experts say it’s too early to determine the full environmental impact, but the number of animals injured is minimal so far.
Investigators are investigating whether a ship’s anchor may have hit a pipeline on the ocean floor, Coast Guard officials said on Monday.
Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify Energy, said divers from the company were investigating the area of the suspected leak that was reported on Saturday and he expected a clearer picture of the cause of the damage to be in place by Tuesday. Willsher said a cargo ship anchor hitting the pipeline was “one of the several possibilities” behind the leak.
Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area. The ports have been hit by backwater in recent months, and several dozen or more of the giant ships are regularly anchored while waiting to enter and unload.
“We’re looking to see if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. said Jeannie Shaye.
Shaye said the Coast Guard was only notified of the disaster on Saturday morning, despite records showing that their dangerous oil spill response hotline received the first report of a possible oil spill on Friday evening.
A foreign ship anchored off the coast saw an “unknown shine in the water near your ship” at 6:13 pm and the report was called to the operations center shortly after 8:22 pm, according to the status report.
Lonnie Harrison Jr., vice president of Colonial Compliance Systems Inc., which works with overseas vessels in U.S. waters to report leaks, said one of its customers reported the sighting.
Harrison, a retired Coast Guard captain, said the ship was not involved in the leak and was cleared to enter port for refueling later over the weekend after it was found not to have been contaminated by the slick.
About six hours after receiving the first report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that satellite imagery had discovered a possible oil spill over three miles in length. The National Response Center report said the picture of a “possible oil anomaly” was likely linked to the first report.
“Although there were numerous ships in close proximity to the anomaly, none were clearly associated with the anomaly,” the report said. “These factors prevented the possible identification of a point source. Nevertheless, the NRC report gives a high level of confidence that it was oil. “
The company operating the pipeline first reported the leak to the Coast Guard Response Center on Saturday at 8:55 a.m. However, the report said the incident occurred at 2:30 a.m.
Federal and state authorities require a quick notification of an exit. Failure to do so has resulted in criminal prosecutions against the Plains All American Pipeline, which caused a coastal spill near Santa Barbara in 2015, and a massive wellbore eruption against the Southern California Gas Co. later that year.
A 2016 spill response plan for the Amplify platforms presented to federal regulators called for immediate notification of federal officials if more than a barrel of oil spills into the water. Spills of more than five barrels – or threatening state waters or the coastline – require immediate notification of state fire marshal and California wildlife authorities.
The pipeline was to be monitored by an automated leak detection system that reported problems to a 24/7 manned control room on the oil rig known as Elly.
The system has been designed to trigger an alarm whenever a change in oil flow is detected. However, it was expected that the rate at which these changes could be detected would vary depending on the size of the leak. For a large leak – 10% or more of the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline – the detection time was estimated to be 5 minutes. Smaller leaks were expected to take up to 50 minutes to detect, according to the response plan.
The Spill Plan warned that a break in the pipeline could cause “significant damage to the environment” and that in the worst case scenario, 3,111 barrels (131,000 gallons) of oil could be released from the pipeline.
Willsher said the required authorities were notified “immediately” when the company realized the leak was from his pipe. Records show that the exit was not reported by Amplify Energy but by Witt O’Brien’s, a crisis and emergency management company listed in the emergency plan as the point of contact for notifying the NRC.
The report said the leaking pipe had been shut off, but containment was not confirmed. The cause of the break was unknown.
Orange County’s District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he had investigators looking to bring state charges for the spillage even though the leak occurred in waters monitored by the U.S. government. Other potential criminal investigations are being pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.
Safety advocates have been pushing federal regulations for years that would tighten requirements for oil spill detection and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut off the flow of crude oil in the event of a leak. The oil and pipeline industry has resisted these requirements because of the high cost.
“If the operator had installed more valves on this line, they would have a much better chance of isolating the point of failure by now,” said Bill Caram of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization based in Bellingham, Washington.
The pipeline was built using a process known as electrical resistance welding, according to a regulatory filing from the company. This welding process has been linked to previous oil pipeline failures as corrosion can occur along the seams, according to government and Caram safety advisory.
Annual reports filed with federal regulators in 2019 and 2020 showed that inspections for the inside and outside of the pipe did not require repair.