Massive California oil spill was reported Friday. But nobody told the millions who went to the beaches

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As millions of Californians descended on the famous beaches of Orange County on a blazing hot Saturday, little did they know that a massive oil spill had happened the night before.

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Federal and state officials were aware of the spill as of Friday evening, the official spill report shows. And satellites from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed an oily “anomaly” during the night as mushrooms mushroomed in inky Pacific waters.

But early Saturday, as wind gusts moved away from the coast, officials opted not to inform the general public. A military air show in Huntington Beach went as planned, drawing an estimated 1.5 million visitors. In the high ’90s more visitors flocked to Newport Beach and other prized coastal beaches, escaping inland temperatures.


By nightfall, the winds had changed, and so had the authorities. Officials told reporters that a pipeline had ruptured and it looked bad, with at least 125,000 gallons of crude headed straight to the coast.

The two-mile-long spill underscores a troubling reality with oil spills and other dangerous releases – more than a dozen are reported a day to emergency hotlines in California, and the public usually never knows. Some inland oil rigs have been going on for years, Attracting little notice and even earning companies that splurge on oil and refine it for millions of dollars.

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The delayed notice and the scope of the spill angered many locals.

“It’s 2021. It’s not like we’re living in the Stone Age. We have the technology and the safety features,” said Dwayne Brady, as he biked to Huntington Beach with his little dog, Killer. Didn’t have a pressure gauge? Didn’t they find out that all that oil had fallen?”

Brady, who has lived in the city for 18 years, questioned why the community was not alerted sooner and why, if the pipeline had leaked so much oil, it would not have closed automatically.

“Someone has to be held accountable,” he said.

Experts agree that the public should have been informed as soon as federal and state officials knew whether the beaches had been reached. He said the spill could be dangerous for people as well as wildlife.

“At least reporting it publicly and then letting people decide if they want to go to the beach, and possibly be exposed at air shows,” said Professor Donald Blake, an atmospheric chemist at UC Irvine. ” Studied air pollution including oil spills.

Crude petroleum contains a smorgasbord of toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that rapidly vaporize upon expansion, including benzene, toluene, and xylene. While the most dangerous place is at the bubbling point, gases can be carried for miles in the air.

Who knew and when?

When a single drop of oil spills into the ocean off the US coast, it must by law be immediately reported to the 24-hour Federal National Response Center, the designated federal contact point for all oil, chemical, radiological, biological reporting and in the environment. etiological discharge.

But by the time the first report made Friday of the oil spill off Southern California, it was already two nautical miles long and 100 meters wide, according to a copy of the report obtained by USA Today/The Desert Sun. And the public wouldn’t be told until about 24 hours later, when millions flocked to nearby beaches on a sunny Saturday.

The first call came at 6:13 p.m., according to a copy of the federal report on the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Spill Report website: “The caller is reporting an unidentified flash in the water near his vessel in the Pacific Ocean.”

NOAA officials also informed the Federal Response Center twice in the night that satellites were picking up a large “anomaly” that looked like oil, which, according to an update on the California Emergency Services website, was 4 1/2″ from Huntington Beach. Miles was focused. In total, at least 30 agencies were listed to be notified, including federal, state, regional and local departments that deal with fire, air, land, parks, health, wildlife, water and utilities.

till dawn, According to reports, the spill had grown to about 3 nautical miles long and 7/10 of a mile wide. The estimated amount of oil poured into the sea was 1,44,000 gallons.

It is not immediately clear from the official reports available whether or when Amplify Energy, the company whose pipeline from Huntington Beach broke somewhere between its platform and the Long Beach pumping facility, made a formal report.

Cleanup workers (R) attempt to contain oil that seeps into Talbert Marsh, home to nearly 90 bird species, after a 126,000 gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach, Calif. Is.  The spill forced the closure of the popular Great Pacific Airshow, with officials urging people to avoid nearby beaches.

News reports quoted a company official as saying that he had informed the US Coast Guard that an oil spill had occurred, when the company noticed an oily glow in the water. The Coast Guard said it received initial reports of an oil spill at 9:10 a.m., 15 hours after the national hotline was first reported and dozens of agencies were listed as being notified by fax.

“Who gets the fax on Friday night? Who gets the fax too? That report isn’t going anywhere,” said Deborah Gordon, a Brown University professor and senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Gordon, who has studied California’s oil fields and production, said the process shows how old the US emergency response system is in terms of hazardous releases.

“Whenever there is a release, any time there is something leaking in the air, in the water, there should be a public notification,” she said.

In last week’s spill, the public was not informed until later Saturday, despite complaints from the public and shop owners in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach about the heavy tar-like odor beginning Friday afternoon.

A Coast Guard official cited the media call to an Integrated Incident Command spokesperson with the State Office of Spill Prevention and Response. He did not respond to requests for comment. Two state and federal reports said winds were moving toward the west northwest, not eastward, toward the coast early Saturday. The authorities must have thought that mass would send the cunning farther out to sea. But the wind changed, and the direction of the mass spread changed as well.

Experts said it is possible to clean up and prevent oil spills at night using bright floodlights, booms that can be deployed under waves and even “good” bacteria. But, Paxon CEO Nushin Behroyan said, the risks are greater, more wildlife is out there and workers are less able to see the dangerous oil. The weather, swelling and other conditions should also be favorable.

As of mid-Saturday morning, the pipeline was believed to be “leaking 16” running from shore to Platform Alley (33 38.976 N 118 06.540 W) in the Pacific Ocean, the pipeline has been shut down, according to an official report. good.

The report said about 3,500 barrels (147,000 gallons) of crude oil may have been released, adding that “materials are headed towards the Newport beach area and are expected to make landfall on Saturday evening.” “

On Sunday, tarry globs washed ashore and tides pushed oil into delicate wetlands that provide habitat for 90 species of birds and other wildlife. Miles of beach were lined with necklaces of black oil. The last day of the air show was canceled and the public was politely but firmly asked to stay away. Nearly all of Huntington Beach’s coast was closed, and so was the northern half of Newport Beach’s sand.

On Monday, 10 more petroleum spills were reported to officials in the Kern County oil field off the coast of San Diego.

Boats helping to clean up an oil spill are seen off the coast in Huntington Beach, California, on October 3, 2021.

Janet Wilson is senior environmental reporter for USA Today California and The Desert Sun. Contact him at [email protected] or @janetwilson66. can be contacted at

USA Today reporter Kristal Hayes contributed to this report.

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