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By Lillian Boyd and Shawn Raymundo

An estimated 126,000 gallons of heavy crude oil leaked into the waters off Orange County this past weekend.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is spearheading the clean-up response along federal, state, county and city agencies, announced on Sunday, Oct. 3, an investigation into the cause spill that has spread across 13 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

The massive spill, which has since stopped, is believed to have originated from an underwater pipeline between the Port of Long Beach and an offshore oil platform owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp.

In a press conference on Monday afternoon, Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher told reporters that the dive team sent to examine more than 8,000 feet of pipeline has isolated one specific area “of significant interest.”

“There’s more information to come but I think we’re moving closely to a source and a cause of this incident,” Willsher said, later explaining that additional details are likely to be released in the next 24 hours. “We’ve seen the spot that could very likely be the source. It is in the area that we identified.”

Willsher noted that boaters were first to report a sheen in the water on Saturday morning, Oct. 2, when the company, Coast Guard and other agencies activated their spill response. The pipeline and operations at Amplify’s three offshore platforms were shut down Saturday night.

Asked whether Amplify would be on the hook for funding the cleanup, Willsher said that “whatever needs to be done, we’ll take care of it.”

The city of Laguna Beach closed all city beaches Sunday night, Oct. 3, in anticipation of oil from a nearby spill washing ashore. Photo: Lillian Boyd

According to news outlets, oil gushed into the Catalina Channel, creating a slick that spanned about 8,320 acres. The spill has left oil along long stretches of sand in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, killing fish and birds and threatening ecologically sensitive wetlands in what officials are calling an environmental catastrophe.

Crews on the water and onshore worked around the clock Sunday to limit environmental damage from one of the largest oil spills in recent California history. The oil has tainted the sands of Huntington Beach and could keep the beaches there closed for weeks or more.

“We’ve more than doubled the level of effort just since yesterday, and those numbers will go up,” Rebecca Ore of the U.S. Coast Guard said of the cleanup efforts during Monday’s press conference.

The leaked oil, she continued, is expected to continue moving in a southerly direction. Noting the spill’s stretch from Huntington to Laguna, Ore said shoreline assessment teams are walking the beaches to examine sensitive coastal areas.

Technical booms to create barriers and isolate impacted areas are being used at seven locally sensitive sites such as the Talbert Marsh and Bolsa Chica, Christian Corbo a lieutenant with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained during the press conference.

The city of Huntington Beach on Sunday announced its decision to close the ocean and shoreline from the Santa Ana River Jetty to Seapoint Street for an undetermined period of time. In anticipation of the oil coming ashore, Laguna Beach officials also closed all city beaches Sunday night.

On Monday morning, the County of Orange also closed Newport Beach Harbor, as well as Bayside Beach, which is located within the Newport Beach Harbor. The county couldn’t provide a date or time when the harbor could reopen.

“Boats will not be allowed to enter or exit Newport Beach Harbor at this time,” a county notice stated. “Impacted boaters are requested to go to Huntington Beach Harbor or Long Beach Harbor.”

According to the county’s press release, discussions are being held to determine whether other harbors south of Newport Beach Harbor would need to be closed. Boaters, the county advised, should use this time to prepare.

The county also said that cleanup volunteers are not requested and is encouraging the public not to assist with those efforts, as “trained spill response contractors are working to clean up the oil.”

Addressing the closures, Corbo said they’re meant to prevent and prohibit the taking of any fish in the contaminated waters, and that Fish and Wildlife will have patrol boats advising recreation and commercial fisherman of the closures.

Responding to a question on when the last time the pipeline was monitored, Willsher said it gets cleaned on a weekly basis to remove paraffin deposits and other items that may cause build up.

According to Willsher, the company also deploys an inspection device called a Smart Pig every two years to measure the thickness of the pipeline walls. And every other year, he added, remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, are used to scan the pipeline from above.

“In nine years of owning the asset, we’ve never seen any degradation of the pipe from the inside,” he said. “And every other year, those alternating years, we do have a full ROV scan of the entire pipeline from above to see if there’s anteing laying across the pipe.”

Elected officials are also responding to the spill as Rep. Michelle Steel (CA-48) on Sunday afternoon provided an update from her aerial tour of the damage and the Major Disaster Declaration request that she sent to President Joe Biden.

“This oil spill is devastating for our community and I am working hard to get Orange County the resources we need to clean up and keep our coastline safe. I’m thankful to the Coast Guard and local leaders who have been working around the clock to contain the spill. We are working together to keep our community safe,” said Steel.

A Major Disaster Declaration makes additional federal assistance available for state and local agencies working to respond to a natural disaster, as well as individuals and households impacted.

“This is just the latest tragedy of the oil industry. The reality of our reliance on oil and gas is on full display here,” Oceana’s Chief Policy Officer Jacqueline Savitz said in a prepared statement. “This is the legacy of the fossil fuel age, in which the oil and gas industry pushed their product until we were addicted.”

Oceana is an international advocacy organization dedicated to ocean conservation.

“We need to break that addiction by shifting to clean energy. It’s time for the age of oil and gas to be history,” Savitz said.

Rep. Mike Levin, who represents cities including Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano within the 49th Congressional District, will take a Coast Guard flight to survey the oil spill and a boat tour of the impacted areas.

This is a developing story.

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