A video of the sea floor off the Orange County coast this week shows damage to an oil pipeline that sent an estimated 144,000 gallons of crude into the ocean, fouling beaches and threatening ecologically sensitive wetlands.
The footage, taken by a remotely operated vehicle on Monday, appears to show a portion of the 4,000-foot section of the nearly 18-mile oil pipeline that had been displaced. Diver reported and video showed a 13-inch split along the pipe’s length, according to the joint unified command overseeing the investigation into the spill.
Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive of the pipeline operator’s parent company, Amplify Energy Corp., described the force as pulling the pipe in an almost “semicircle.”
“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bowstring,” he said.
Federal sources told The Times this week that the displacement could best be explained by a ship’s anchor dragging across the ocean floor and hooking the pipeline, which runs from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly.
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, but Coast Guard investigators have come up with no other explanation, federal sources said. Authorities said the video confirms that oil is no longer leaking from the 41-year-old pipeline.
Pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz expects investigators to remove the damaged pipeline, then begin a metallurgical examination of the steel.
“When did the strain occur?” he asked. “Days before? Or did something in its operation cause it to rupture Friday night? The forensic science is sophisticated, and they should be able to tell if the damage was delayed or immediate.”
Cleanup, which some county officials estimate could take months, continued Thursday morning ahead of a storm that meteorologists say could bring 20 mph winds to the region and push oil toward beaches.
By the end of the week, officials expect to have 1,500 workers cleaning oil from beaches and offshore areas from Sunset Beach to Dana Point. Early Thursday, a pollution-control vessel was working off the Huntington Beach coast where a plume of oil has lingered since the spill. Two other vessels were tackling another slick that has slowly moved south over the past four days and is now off the coast of San Clemente, maps show.
More than 5,500 gallons of crude oil have been recovered and 12,860 feet — almost 2½ miles — of containment boom have been deployed to protect beaches, according to the Coast Guard.
North of the Huntington Beach Pier on Thursday morning, a worker in a white hazmat suit picked up a quarter-sized clump of oil, lifted it to his nose and sniffed. Recognizing the smell of crude, he used a gloved hand to lower the tar ball into a plastic trash bag.
He was one of 60 people combing the shore of Huntington State Beach for oil. Some carried orange nets called screeners, which allow them to sift oil while leaving the sand intact. Others, poised like human derricks, were stooped over and picking up the crude by hand.
The crews have made progress cleaning the stretch of beach over the past five days. Signs of the black rings and clumps of crude that littered the shore following the weekend spill have started to disappear.
“Make sure you’re checking under the leaves!” one worker yelled, turning a piece of kelp over in his hands.
Crews are also surveying the coast in search of wildlife disturbed by the spill. As of late Wednesday, they had recovered 19 live oiled birds: six western grebes, five snowy plovers, a sanderling, an eared grebe, an American coot, a ruddy duck, a double-crested cormorant, a clark’s grebe, a California gull and a brown pelican. Three double-crested cormorants, an American coot and a western gull were found dead, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), who toured the spill this week by boat and helicopter, said he could see oil stretching down the coast. He’s pushing legislation that would ban future offshore drilling, but he’s also interested in phasing out drilling that’s currently underway. The offshore oil infrastructure is aging and creating more risk of ecological disaster, he said.
“It’s just not worth drilling along Southern California’s coast,” he said. “The amount of oil we produce really is a drop in the bucket.”
Stretches of sand in Huntington Beach and parts of Newport Beach have been the most severely soiled by the spill. Some oil has also washed up in Laguna Beach and Dana Point, officials said. But as a large plume continues to drift south, officials in San Clemente and San Diego County beaches are bracing for possible oil on their shores as well.
Lifeguards in Oceanside found two small tar balls on the beach Wednesday night. Authorities in Carlsbad and Encinitas also reported some tar. However, officials are not certain whether the tar is from the spill or normal ocean debris that sometimes washes ashore, said Terry Gorman Brown, a management analyst with the city manager’s office in Oceanside.
The Coast Guard is sending cleanup teams to beaches south of Camp Pendleton for analysis. Oceanside is prepared to deploy a boom to protect its harbor, if necessary, Gorman Brown said.
“They’re doing 12 overflights a day, and the most south they’ve seen a sheen is about 12 miles off the coast of San Onofre,” Gorman Brown said. “We’re seeing how it goes.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has expressed concern about the potential for oil making its way into the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, which feeds into the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Officials have discussed placing a boom at the mouth of the lagoon as a precaution, but the plant, which provides about 50 million gallons of water daily to San Diego County, has not been affected, said Scott Maloni, Poseidon Water’s vice president of project development.
Early Thursday in San Clemente, there was no sign of disruption from the spill that has spoiled beaches in the northern section of Orange County. Despite an on-and-off drizzle and overcast skies, surfers rode waves along the shore and people fished off the San Clemente Pier. Children splashed and played along the shoreline.
Sheri Cowell walked to a bench overlooking the pier — just as she does every day. She scanned the coastline for oil but didn’t see anything unusual.
“I figured it’d be coming; just don’t know when,” Cowell said.
A few benches over, Margaret Anderson, 76, and her husband, Kevin Keane, 67, stared off into the horizon. It was the couple’s first official outing since the pandemic. They left their Bay Area home Monday and made several short stops along the way until they reached Orange County.
“What timing!” Keane said. The couple was scheduled to visit Catalina Island on Thursday but canceled their trip because of the spill.
“The worse thing is the sea life,” Anderson said. “It’s just terrible and so unnecessary.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Chris Megerian and Anita Chabria contributed to this report.