Damage to oil pipeline may have occurred up to a year before the spill, investigators say

Damage to a pipeline that sent up to 131,000 gallons of oil into the waters off the Orange County coast could have occurred several months to nearly a year before the spill, Coast Guard officials said Friday.

Investigators suspect an initial anchor strike displaced a portion of the pipeline 105 feet and stripped away its concrete casing, causing it to be more vulnerable to other potential anchor strikes or environmental stressors. As they attempt to determine when that first strike occurred, investigators are focusing on a storm that brought strong winds to the area over the course of two days in late January, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer said during a press conference Friday afternoon.

The pipeline was intact in October 2020 when the company last did an inspection, Neubauer said. It is not clear when the pipe began leaking or what caused it. But the marine growth visible around the displaced section of the pipeline indicates the anchor drag likely didn’t happen recently, Neubauer said.

“That has refocused the time frame of our investigation to at least several months to a year ago,” he said.

Video from a remotely operated vehicle taken Monday appears to show a portion of the 4,000-foot section that had been displaced from the nearly 18-mile oil pipeline, which runs from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. Divers reported and video showed a 13-inch tear in the pipe, which doesn’t look like the result of an anchor piercing it, Neubauer said.

“It’s very possible that the initial strike just deflected the pipeline with no fracture and then additional stresses added later by another incident or geological events…either increased the fracture or caused the whole thing,” Neubauer said.

Coast Guard investigators have examined several ships that were in the area last week and concluded that none of them are likely responsible for the damage, two sources told The Times on Friday. The sources spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. However, Neubauer said investigators have not ruled out any vessels.

Officials say damage to the pipeline caused a minimum of about 24,696 gallons and a maximum of 131,000 gallons of oil to spill into the ocean, resulting in a slick that has stalked the Orange County coast for nearly a week. Oil has washed up from Huntington Beach to San Diego County, fouling beaches and threatening sensitive marine habitats.

Coast Guard investigators plan to bring in experts to determine how long ago the pipe was damaged and when it began leaking. The Coast Guard sent down its own team of divers to gather evidence for the probe separate from the dive team hired by the joint unified command.

Investigators will pore over data detailing which large vessels moved over the pipeline amid heavy winds on January 24 and 25. They’re also going to review data that shows every vessel that has moved over the pipeline or encroached on it since last October, Neubauer said.

The timeline presented by the energy company at the center of the oil spill is also under scrutiny.

Amplify Energy Corp., the pipeline operator’s parent company, said the firm first learned of the leak at 8:09 a.m. Saturday. But federal regulators said this week that employees in the control room of the subsidiary that operates the San Pedro Bay Pipeline received a low-pressure alarm, “indicating a possible failure,” about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Regulators said it took more than three hours before the pipeline was shut down.

Martyn Willsher, Amplify’s president and chief executive, denied that anyone at the firm was alerted to the leak at 2:30 a.m. by a change of oil pressure in the pipe but would not elaborate, saying the facts would emerge during the investigation.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and we are extremely sorry this happened,” Willsher said. “The cause of this will still need to be investigated, but regardless of the cause we are going to do everything we can to make things right for all of those impacted areas and individuals as quickly as we can.”

Pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz said pressure-loss alerts in a pipeline are usually not caused by a release of oil, and it isn’t reasonable to expect an operator to clamp a line whenever an alarm goes off. But he said he was surprised it took the operator in this case hours to shut down the pipeline.

“Something doesn’t look right here,” he said.

Times staff writer Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.

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