Evidence suggests ship anchor snagged, dragged oil pipeline

Brian Melley, Matthew Brown and Stefanie Dazio
Associated Press

 Long Beach, Calif. — Evidence emerged Tuesday that a ship’s anchor snagged and dragged an underwater pipeline that ruptured and spilled tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil off Southern California, an accident the Coast Guard acknowledged it did not investigate for nearly 10 hours after the first call came in about a possible leak.

The pipe was split open and a huge section was apparently dragged more than 100 feet (30.5 meters) along the ocean floor, possibly by "an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear,” federal transportation investigators said.

Workers in protective suits clean oil in an inlet leading to the Wetlands Talbert Marsh after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bow string," said Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify Energy Corp., which operates the pipeline. "At its widest point, it is 105 feet (32 meters) away from where it was.”

The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude into the ocean off Huntington Beach, and it then washed onto miles of beaches and a protected marshland. The beaches could remain closed for weeks or longer, a major hit to the local economy. Coastal fisheries in the area are closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

The time of the spill was still unclear Tuesday, and there was no indication whether investigators suspect that a particular ship was involved.

Coast Guard officials defended their decision to wait until sunrise to investigate a possible spill first reported by a commercial ship at 8:22 p.m. Friday near a cluster of boats that were anchored off Huntington Beach.

That sighting was supported by a report to the National Response Center, a hazardous spill hotline staffed by the Coast Guard, at 2:06 a.m. Saturday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said satellite images showed the strong likelihood of an oil slick.

Residents in nearby Newport Beach had also complained Friday about a strong stench of petroleum, and police put out a notice to the public about it.

The Coast Guard was alerted to a sheen on the water by a “good Samaritan” but did not have enough corroborating evidence and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology to seek out the spill, an official told The Associated Press.

Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer said the Coast Guard put out a broadcast to the many cargo and tanker ships anchored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, along with oil rigs, seeking more information but did not receive any response.

Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore later disputed that account. She said the Coast Guard did not broadcast any information to ships or oil platforms and Penoyer later said he needed to check his facts.

Penoyer said it was fairly common to get reports of oil sheens in a major seaport.

“In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at that time,” Penoyer said. “So putting yourself in the position of what they did know, this is a very normal process.”

Federal pipeline safety investigators put the time of the spill at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, which is when they said an alarm sounded in the control room of an offshore oil rig that pressure had dropped in the pipeline, indicating a possible leak.

Willsher said the company was not aware of the spill until it saw a sheen on the water at 8:09 a.m.

An aerial photo shows the closed beach after oil washed up on Huntington Beach, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

The pipeline company did not report the spill until around 9 a.m. Saturday. At that point, the Coast Guard had been on the water for a couple hours and then discovered the spill.

The company’s spill-response plan calls for immediate notification of a spill. Criminal charges have been brought in the past when it took too long to notify federal and state officials of a spill.

Several different different agencies are investigating the spill, including local and federal prosecutors.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the pipeline last had an internal inspection in October 2019 and an external inspection in April of 2020. He said the pipeline was due for a second internal inspection at the end of the month. Newsom said no issues have been cited in the inspections.

Speaking at a news conference, he repeated his calls to move beyond oil, though environmentalists say he hasn't done enough in that regard.

“It’s time, once and for all, to disabuse ourselves that this has to be part of our future. This is part of our past,” he said from Bolsa Chica State Beach, where he was joined by local, state and federal officials to discuss the spill.

Workers in protective suits clean oil in an inlet leading to the Wetlands Talbert Marsh after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

The segment of the pipe that ruptured was three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) long, and the gash was over a foot (30 centimeters) wide, the Coast Guard said.

The break in the line occurred about 5 miles offshore at a depth of about 98 feet (30 meters), investigators said. Those findings were included in an order from the Department of Transportation that blocked the company from restarting the pipeline without extensive inspections and testing.

The order did not identify the source of the investigators’ information, and agency officials did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Michael Biesecker in Washington, and Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach, California, contributed to this report.