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Ongoing Investigation Into The Huntington Beach Oil Spill

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Reports of an oil sheen on Oct. 2, 2021 revealed a ruptured pipeline in San Pedro Bay, which released an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil into the waters off the coast of Orange County to San Diego County. An ongoing investigation aims to uncover details regarding who or what caused the incident.

According to State Sen. David Min, who represents Orange County beaches, the Huntington Beach oil spill has jeopardized the coastal ecosystem and posed a great threat to the flora, fauna and marine life in the area.

Investigators suspect that a portion of the pipeline was displaced 105 feet after an anchor strike, which stripped away its concrete casing and left the structure vulnerable to another collision.

When original plans for an oil pipeline in Orange County were discussed in 1978, regulators examined the possibility of pipeline damage caused by a ship’s anchor. Documents reviewing the pipeline’s construction estimate that on the unlikely occurrence of a potential leak, only 50 barrels, or 2,100 gallons, of oil would be released. However, this estimate turned out to be nearly 10 times smaller than the actual amount of oil.

It remains unclear when the pipe began to leak and the cause has not been explicitly determined.  However, experts have concluded that if the pipe was in fact damaged by an anchor, it is unlikely to have occurred recently, based on the vast amount of marine life around the displaced section.

“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,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer said.

Amplify Energy Corporation, the company at the center of the oil spill, initially stated that they were first informed of the leak at 8:09 a.m. on Oct. 2. However, employees in the control room of the subsidiary that operate the pipeline received a low-pressure alarm over 5 hours prior at around 2:30 a.m. that indicated a “possible failure.”

At a hearing conducted by the California State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on Oct. 28, the lack of an early response posed great concern, raising discussions about establishing a more developed notification system in the future. 

“I think it’s appropriate to assess collectively if there is a smarter way to handle or approve upon notifications. Every hour does matter,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton “Chuck” Bonham said

Pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz stated that pressure-loss alerts are not typically caused by ruptured pipelines; nonetheless, the operator should have taken less than three hours to understand the situation and shut the pipeline down. 

“This is a terrible tragedy, and we are extremely sorry this happened,” Amplify Energy President and Chief Executive Martyn 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.”

Criminal charges of negligently discharging oil were later filed by the grand jury against Amplify Energy, Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. in December 2021. These charges carry a statutory maximum penalty of five years probation and fines up to millions of dollars. 

The claim stated that the companies illegally discharged oil into federal waters, that the Long Beach platform was understaffed and that the fatigued staff “had not been provided sufficient training regarding the pipeline’s automated leak detection system.”

Despite the information shared by Amplify Energy in October regarding the first alert workers received, prosecutors asserted that the pipeline operator failed to “properly respond” to alerts from the leak detection system that went off approximately eight times over the course of 12 hours. They claimed that the first alarm actually occurred at 4:10 p.m. on Oct. 1, not at 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 2. 

The indictment stated that the alarms repeated every hour until 11:30 p.m., and that operators responded to five of the alarms by “shutting down and restarting” the flow of oil. For an additional three hours until 2:30 a.m., oil continued to be pumped through the pipeline. The next day at approximately 5:30 a.m, the crew allowed oil to continue to pass through for an hour after they failed to locate any trace of oil discharge, which would not have been visible due to how dark it was outside. 

In response to these charges, Amplify Energy had previously stated that workers believed the leak detection system was sending false alarms and tried to troubleshoot it.

The spill has caused the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure to be subject to intense scrutiny by federal regulators, businesses and residents initiating legal action over the tragedy.

In search of a solution, lawmakers and environmental advocates are attempting to prohibit all future offshore drilling, while others want to extend the ban to existing companies “to end all offshore drilling and extraction including under current leases in state waters” as Min said.

No new offshore drilling has been approved off the state’s coastline since 1984. However, the opening of offshore drilling and natural gas reserves was proposed by the Trump administration in 2018. This proposal would have included the waters off of the California coast. 

In response to the proposal, California, Delaware, New Hampshire and New Jersey were among the coastal states that passed laws to block new gas and oil pipelines from being created on state lands. 

“As long as offshore drilling is allowed, we’re going to continue to see these leaks, these accidents, these types of impacts on our marine life, on our fisheries, on our economy, on our beaches and bays,” San Diego County Board of Supervisors chair Nathan Fletcher said.  

In attempts to alleviate the damage caused by the spill, volunteers have made efforts to clean up the Orange County coast and help rehabilitate wildlife. After the animals, primarily birds, were free of the oil that had seeped into their feathers, they were able to be released back into their habitat. 

The clean up took a few months, but ultimately, officials and residents were able to bring the health of the surrounding environment back to baseline level.

The immediate action taken by Orange County’s coast guard and other respondents gave other counties the ability to react quickly in order to closely monitor the spill.

For example, San Diego County put in early requests for their most sensitive lagoons and habitat areas. Five different lagoons, vital wetlands and San Diego’s desalination plant responsible for seven of their regions’ water were protected, Fletcher stated

While San Diego and other areas did not face the devastating impacts that the oil spill caused in Orange County, the major event continues to remind officials and individuals of the risks of offshore drilling.

A federal investigation into the Huntington Beach oil spill is ongoing and has been stalled for several months as officials await permission to obtain and cut apart a portion of the ruptured pipeline in order to determine how long ago damage was inflicted. 

This information could clarify the responsibility for the damage. However, the permit to remove and analyze the pipeline is still being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 mandates a permit from the Corps to obstruct navigable waters in the U.S.

Until then, the investigation remains open, and authorities are awaiting authorization to take steps into uncovering the truth behind the disaster. 

“We need this pipeline to really know what happened,” Neubauer said. “Until we have it, we aren’t going to make the progress we want.”


Alexia Hawley is a City News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at adhawley@uci.edu.