Crews scrambled to limit the damage caused by a huge oil leak off the coast of Orange County on Sunday, with crude strewn across beaches, killing fish and birds and endangering adjacent wetlands.
The incident, which occurred off the coast of Huntington Beach and was tied to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, was initially reported on Saturday. The collapse caused at least 126,000 gallons of crude to seep into coastal seas, resulting in an oil slick that covered 8,320 acres—an area larger than Santa Monica—and sent oil to the beaches of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach early Sunday.
Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre natural refuge in Huntington Beach home to dozens of bird species, was also contaminated by oil from the leak.
Officials reported the pipeline appears to have stopped leaking on Sunday afternoon. However, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said oil was still spilling into the night despite efforts to plug the damaged pipeline on Saturday. Early Sunday, divers were trying to restore it.
What caused the spill and how long oil was flowing out of the system is unknown.
Oil had washed ashore in Huntington Beach by daylight Sunday, leaving slicks in the surf, causing officials to restrict a section of beach between Seapoint Street and the Newport Beach city border at the Santa Ana River jetty. Officials said that dead birds and fish had begun to wash up on the shore.
"In a year filled with incredibly difficult issues, this oil spill represents one of the most devastating situations our community has faced in decades," said Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr. "Relax, the Huntington Beach team mobilized quickly, and we are responding proactively. We're doing everything we can to preserve our people', tourists', and natural environments' health and safety."
Officials predict that the oil will continue to encroach on Orange County beaches in the coming days.
The scent of diesel and tar washed over the Huntington State Beach shoreline shortly after daybreak. Crashing waves deposited dark oil in clumps and circles on the beach.
Residents ventured out onto the sand early Sunday, despite the beach restriction, to inspect the damage.
Jon Ely, a 58-year-old Huntington Beach resident, described the situation as "terrible." "This isn't going to come up again. It's a gooey, viscous substance."
Rep. Michelle Steel of Orange County wrote to President Joe Biden on Sunday, asking for a major disaster declaration for Orange County, which would provide greater federal help to state and local authorities as well as individuals affected by the leak.
She wrote, "It is critical that the federal government assist in recovery efforts." "I am deeply concerned about the spill's environmental consequences and applaud the workers who are doing everything they can to keep the oil from reaching sensitive wetlands."
According to Ben Smith, a biologist and environmental consultant for the county, Huntington State Beach is home to various bird species, including gulls, willets, elegant terns, and reddish egrets, which are rare on the west coast.
Smith went to the beach on Sunday morning to look for animals ahead of a planned construction project at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, which flows into the ocean along the border between Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach.
As he surveyed the birds clustered on the river's north bank, he said, "There's tar everywhere." "You'd think by now we'd have figured out how to avoid something like this, but I guess not."
He believes the spill will have a massive impact on the environment.