Oil spill off Orange County coast is smaller than estimated, Coast Guard says

Officials say the amount of oil that leaked from a pipeline off the Orange County coast, fouling stretches of sand and threatening ecologically sensitive areas from Huntington Beach to San Diego County, may be smaller than originally projected.

In the first days of the spill, officials warned that possibly 126,000 gallons had flowed out of a pipeline that runs from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore production and processing platform. That number was raised on Monday to potentially 144,000 gallons.

However, Capt. Rebecca Ore, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Los Angeles-Long Beach sector, said Thursday that after further assessments officials had determined that a minimum of about 24,696 gallons, or 588 barrels, and a maximum of 131,000 gallons, or 3,134 barrels, of oil was released from the pipeline.

The 131,000-gallon estimate is a “maximum worst-case discharge that is a planning scenario based on a volume in a pipeline,” Ore said.

Officials were unable to narrow that estimate, leaving another unanswered question as the mystery surrounding how the leak occurred continues to unfold.

“We’re nearly a week into this, and while our cleanup and our emergency response is well underway, we still don’t know answers to how this happened, why it happened and who is ultimately responsible,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said.

Federal sources told The Times this week that the damage to the pipeline could best be explained by a ship’s anchor dragging across the ocean floor and hooking the pipeline.

There were multiple large cargo vessels in the immediate area of the leak before the oil was spotted. A final determination for the cause of the spill may take months. Investigators are probing whether damage to the pipeline could have occurred weeks or even months before the spill, two sources familiar with the investigation told The Times on Friday.

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, sources said. The sources spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Cleanup efforts along the coast have continued to accelerate through the week.

More than 900 people have been surveying beaches and clearing oil from Sunset Beach in Huntington Beach to San Diego County. By the end of the week, officials expect to ramp that number up to 1,500.

Officials said they’ve made progress in the cleanup and hope to advance even further over the weekend. But a storm that meteorologists say could bring 20-mph winds to the region is moving in, raising concerns that more oil could reach shore. So far, much of the crude has remained offshore, but striations have been seen in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

Tar balls that officials suspect came from the oil spill have also washed up in Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas and Del Mar in San Diego County over the past day.

“While it’s not impossible for this to occur naturally, the quantity is highly unusual, and it’s very likely these tar balls are the result of the oil spill,” San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said.

Images from satellites over the oil spill Friday morning show some oil nearing the coast in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and San Clemente.

A pollution-control vessel has been working off the Huntington Beach coast, where a plume of oil has lingered since the spill. Three other vessels were tackling another slick that has slowly moved south and is now off the coast of San Clemente. A fourth vessel was working along the coast of Corona del Mar, maps show.

More than 5,500 gallons of crude oil have been recovered off the coast. Roughly 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been collected from shorelines since the spill and 13 barrels of tar balls were recovered Thursday. Coast Guard officials have deployed 14,060 feet of containment booms in an effort to contain the spill.

One of the long, white booms snaked across the water at Talbert Marsh on Friday morning. Cleanup crews that had swarmed the 25-acre marsh over the past week had moved up, but a woman in a neon yellow vest and rain boots walked slowly along the water line. She bent down, running her fingers over a stubby, ground-covering plant blanketing the marsh. She nodded.

“Looking good,” she said.

Across Pacific Coast Highway, a small team of workers in white hazmat suits and helmets paced the shoreline. Some took notes. One worker pointed at the backlog of cargo ships waiting to enter port lined up on the horizon. Another cleanup crew — dressed in yellow vests and holding rakes and shovels — stood in a nearby parking lot waiting to be deployed. A newcomer to the crew asked those around her for tips.

“What does the oil look like?” she asked.

“Little black balls,” another responded.

“Just like tar?”

“Exactly.”

She nodded, gripping her rake. “Let’s do this.”

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Joshua Emerson Smith contributed to this report

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