California attorney general launches investigation into Orange County oil spill

The California Department of Justice has launched an investigation into an oil spill that sent up to 131,000 gallons of crude into the waters off the Orange County coast, the state’s top cop said Monday.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said his office has not determined whether civil or criminal enforcement is proper at this time.

“As attorney general, I have activated the Department of Justice as resources to help get to the bottom of this in any way we can,” Bonta said during a news conference Monday. “We are focused on the immediate response to the spill, but we also want to know how this happened.”

The U.S. Coast Guard criminal investigations unit and the Orange County district attorney’s office are already conducting criminal investigations into the spill.

Amid the announcement, stretches of sand in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach reopened to swimmers and surfers Monday as cleanup crews continued their work combing the shores for vestiges of oil and tar.

As of Sunday, officials said, 5,400 gallons of oil have been collected from vessels and 250,000 pounds of oil debris have been cleaned from beaches and other areas.

The reopening comes after water-quality test results showed nondetectable amounts of oil contaminants in the water, city officials said.

“We understand the significance our beaches have on tourism, our economy and our overall livelihood here in Huntington Beach,” Mayor Kim Carr said in a statement. “It is important that our decision to reopen our shoreline and water be based on data and that we continue to monitor the water quality going forward.”

In the first few days after the spill, officials warned that up to 144,000 gallons of crude may have seeped out of the pipeline, which runs from a processing and production platform called Elly off the Huntington Beach shore to the Port of Long Beach.

Cleanup crews continue to comb the beach as surfers were allowed back in the water near the Huntington Beach Pier after city and state beaches were reopened on Monday.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

But later in the week, a U.S. Coast Guard official said the spill was probably smaller than initially projected, downgrading the leak to between 24,696 gallons and 131,000 gallons.

Authorities believe that a ship’s anchor scraped the pipeline and dragged it across the ocean floor.

The Coast Guard said Friday that the anchor strike probably occurred months ago, and possibly as long as a year ago. A slight crack in the pipeline may have grown worse over time, or may have survived the first strike intact but incurred damage in another incident, officials said.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer on Monday called for an inspection of all pipelines off the county’s coast.

“Every single pipeline in that region needs to be inspected,” he said during a radio interview. “All the companies need to use their underwater video cameras, and they need to certify, under penalty of perjury, that they don’t have any damage to their pipelines.”

Monica Dunn of Huntington Beach is all smiles as she joins the first surfers back in the water.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For the last week, the beaches belonged to shorebirds, sand crabs and the yellow-vested cleaning crews emblematic of late of the Orange County coastline. On Monday, hours after city officials reopened the water, a familiar constituency — beachgoers — made a grand return.

Surfers paddled out to catch waves. Children wet their ankles at the shoreline. A man wearing headphones sat on a red towel to draw.

Stella Heumann, 41, sat beneath a striped beach umbrella while her husband, James, and children played with a volleyball on the sand. For the family of five, it was a carefree day at the beach.

“I have no concerns,” Heumann said. “I don’t think they would have reopened the beach unless they were confident it was safe for the public.”

Minerva Albarran, visiting with her family from Phoenix, embraces the water at Huntington City Beach.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Minutes later, a cleaning crew walked past the family, carrying rakes and clear plastic bags. Last week, the workers were filling the bags with tar balls and oil-covered kelp. On Monday, the bags were nearly empty.

Surfer Monica Dunn, 36, emerged from the water elated, after crude and caution tape kept her away for a week.

“The waves are not good, but it feels good to be in the water,” she said. “I feel alive.”

Cleanup crews continue to comb the beach under partly cloudy skies at the Huntington Beach Pier after the city and state beaches reopened.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.

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