HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – The energy company that owns the ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 140,000 gallons of oil into Southern California waters didn’t shutdown the pipeline for more than three hours after being alerted, according to federal regulators.
In a letter to the company’s president, U.S. Department of Transportation safety regulators wrote that company personnel “received a low-pressure alarm” at 2:30 a.m. Saturday on the pipeline that signaled “possible failure.” It wasn’t until 6 a.m. — more than three hours later — that it was shutdown, the letter states.
The letter was sent to the pipeline operator’s parent company, Amplify Energy Corp., from the department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — which oversees the pipelines across the country. The letter also notes it took “over six hours” before the company reported the spill to the 24-hour federal National Response Center, the designated federal point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment.
When a single drop of oil spills in the ocean off the U.S. coast, it must, by law, be immediately reported to the center.
The letter and findings shed new light on the various investigations underway and raise questions on whether the energy company reacted quickly enough to prevent Southern California’s largest oil spill in decades. They also come as the U.S. Coast Guard determined a possible cause of the spill: A cargo ship’s anchor may have hooked the pipeline, dragging it more than 100 feet and causing a foot-long gash.
The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday divers were able to locate a bend in the 17-mile pipeline and found it had been moved by 105 feet. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said divers also located a split in the pipeline that was more than a foot long — 13 inches, which investigators believe could be the source of the oil leak.
Preliminary reports suggest the failure may have been “caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear,” federal transportation investigators said.
The break in the line occurred about 5 miles offshore at a depth of about 98 feet beneath the surface, the investigators said. Those findings were included in an order from the Department of Transportation that blocks the company that operates the pipeline from restarting it without extensive inspections and testing.
A ship’s anchor striking a pipeline on the ocean floor is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said.
Dozens of ships have been anchored offshore in recent months due to ports that are plagued by backlogs as COVID-19 and other issues slowed the global supply chain.
“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.
On Monday, about two dozen large cargo ships could be seen from the shores of Huntington Beach anchored along the coast. Investigators are examining whether a ship’s anchor may have struck the pipeline, causing more than 140,000 gallons of oil to spill into the ocean.
About two weeks ago, the backlog of cargo ships off the coast of the Huntington Beach area were waiting to dock at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles — the nation’s two largest ports — broke records. A total of 73 container ships were floating in the waters on Sept. 19 — a new record — waiting to dock at the ports, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.
Cleanup boats floated a mile-long chain of booms to help slow the spread of the shimmering spill that left black ribbons and gobs of oil along the shoreline. Dwayne Brady and his small dog, Killer, watched crews along the beach combat the spread of oil.
“You’d think in this day and age a spill that’s this large would have immediately been detected and stopped,” he said, shaking his head. “This shouldn’t have been this bad. No way.”
The pipeline was supposed to be monitored by an automated leak detection system and control room staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system, part of Amplify’s spill response plan, was designed to trigger an alarm whenever a change in the flow of oil is detected. How fast it can pick up on those changes can vary according to the size of the leak.
When 10% or more of the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline is leaking, the detection time is about five minutes. Smaller leaks take up to 50 minutes to detect, according to the plan.
Along with pinpointing the cause of the leak, the criminal and civil investigations will try to determine why it took so long for Amplify to learn of and report the unfolding disaster.
The first emergency call came in Friday at 6:13 p.m., and it wasn’t from Amplify. A ship had noticed a sheen in the water, according to a federal report on the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spill report website.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notified the federal response center twice that night of a possible oil spill less than 5 miles off Huntington Beach, according to updates on the California emergency services website.
The Coast Guard addressed questions about the timeline Tuesday and said it did not investigate the initial reports of the oil spill for nearly 12 hours because it didn’t have enough corroborating evidence and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology.
Capt. Ore said the first reports about oil possibly in the water “are fairly typical for pollution response agencies.” She noted officials started looking into the reports and calling other agencies but nightfall made it difficult to see oil sheen in the water.
Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer also said it was common to get reports of a sheen near a busy seaport.
Brijesh “Jay” Shesat, a general manager of the Hotel Solarena along the Pacific Coast Highway, said the strong smell of fuel filled the air Friday afternoon. He and others watched jets practicing and some of Huntington Beach’s annual air show from the roof of the three-story hotel.
“I said that afternoon that something smelled strange,” Shesat said. “I don’t think any of us could have predicted it was this. We all thought it had to be the jets.”
Natalie Simpson, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo specializing in disaster response and supply chain risk, said the company’s spill response plan says it should be able to detect a leak that amounts to 1% of the pipeline flow within about 50 minutes.
“If what people were smelling on Friday in Huntington Beach was, in fact, this oil, then more than that would have already been leaked,” Simpson said.
Amplify Energy said in a statement that its subsidiary, Beta Offshore, first observed and notified the Coast Guard of an oil sheen Saturday morning.
Amplify’s spill plan warned that a break in the pipeline could cause “substantial harm to the environment” and that in a worst-case scenario, 131,000 gallons of oil could be released. Maximum leakage would occur if a “full guillotine cut” occurred, the plan said.
“I’m just eyeballing a map,” Simpson said. “But it does look that’s about where some are speculating a cargo ship dragged an anchor across” the pipeline.
Tuesday, city officials said the first oiled birds were rescued and stabilized at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center. The center declined donations, saying they might slow down the response.
“All necessary supplies and equipment to support the cleanup effort are being … paid for by the responsible party,” the center said in a statement. “Please be assured we are doing all we can to help the wildlife and environment.”
Shesat said about 10 guests canceled their hotel reservations by Monday afternoon because of the spill.
“We’ve been suffering like other businesses for so long, and things were starting to really improve. We thought this was going to be a busy October,” he said. “This is like another round of COVID.”
Leslie Speyer-Ofenberg couldn’t help but feel a sense of rage walking around his beach community across the highway from where oil washed up on shore.
“This is what happens when we let energy companies just police themselves,” he said. “This is our mess, all of ours. … This issue doesn’t seem to bother us until something like this happens.”
Congress could step in. The House Natural Resources Committee will review a pair of bills next week aimed at strengthening regulation and oversight of offshore oil drilling.
Some of the provisions include mandating frequent inspections and requiring pipelines to be equipped with a leak detection system, as well as requiring offshore drilling operators to report failures of critical safety systems directly to the secretary of the interior, who would be required to publicly disclose these incident reports.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency, hopes to phase out drilling by 2045.
“California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis,” Newsom said. “This incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California oil spill: Pipeline was shutdown 3 hours after alert