Memo: Initial reports of California oil spill came earlier

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — The Coast Guard received multiple reports of a possible fuel spill off the Southern California coast earlier than previously disclosed and asked local authorities to investigate about 15 hours before its own personnel confirmed a large oil slick, which came from a leaking undersea pipeline, records show.

The initial reports of a possible spill north of the Huntington Beach pier came into the Coast Guard about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1, according to an Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s memo provided Wednesday to The Associated Press. The document said there were multiple similar calls over a marine radio emergency channel from boats leaving the Huntington Beach air show.

The department, which runs the county’s harbor patrol, was contacted by the Coast Guard and sent a fireboat to search for the spill but the crew lost visibility as darkness fell, according to the memo obtained through the California Public Records Act. The spill wasn’t confirmed until about 9 a.m. Saturday.

The memo, sent Oct. 3 to harbormaster and sheriff’s Capt. Gary Lewellyn, raises additional questions about the Coast Guard’s initial response to a spill that forced the closure of some of the region’s signature beaches and fisheries, and harmed animal and plant life.

Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jeannie Shaye confirmed Thursday that multiple calls came in over the emergency channel but said her agency has no knowledge of a fireboat going out to check for a spill that Friday. She said at about 6:30 p.m. the Coast Guard made contact with an anchored commercial vessel that had reported a possible spill and asked the crew to make a report to the National Response Center, which is staffed by the Coast Guard and notifies other agencies of emergencies for quick response.

About a half-hour later the Coast Guard began working with state and local agencies to assess the situation, Shaye said. By then, it was getting dark and they decided not to go out due to safety and visibility concerns, she said.

Shaye said Coast Guard personnel went out on the water Saturday morning and confirmed the spill.

The sheriff’s department did not immediately return calls seeking comment about its memo and the agency’s interactions with the Coast Guard after initial reports came in.

Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Coast Guard should have responded more aggressively after getting the first reports.

“An investigation should have immediately taken place, and it could have significantly reduced the size of the spill,” said Sakashita, whose organization has called on the federal government to stop offshore oil drilling. “Among all those reports, you should be able to triangulate that there’s something that needs investigation immediately.”

Prior to release of the sheriff’s department memo it was thought that first word of a possible spill came to the Coast Guard at 6:13 p.m. on Oct. 1 from a foreign-flagged commercial ship anchored off Huntington Beach. The ship reported a sheen on the water that was more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long.

But it wasn’t until 8:22 p.m. that the report was called into the National Response Center by Colonial Compliance Systems Inc., which works with foreign ships in U.S. waters to report spills, according to reports compiled by the California Office of Emergency Services.

Coast Guard officials have given conflicting accounts of what happened on Oct. 1.

Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer told the AP on Oct. 5 that after getting the report from the ship the Coast Guard did not have enough corroborating evidence to look for the spill and was hindered by darkness. He 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, the unified response commander, later said no such broadcast was made. She and other Coast Guard officials said they needed to look into what — if anything — was done at the time, but have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the purported broadcast.

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who chairs a state legislative committee looking into the spill, said she was told the spill was reported late Friday when it was too dark to detect it.

“It seems too crazy in a world where we’re trying to send a man to Mars that we can’t inspect a potential oil slick in the dark,” she said.

At about 7:40 a.m. Saturday Oct. 2, the Coast Guard reached out again to the Harbor Patrol for assistance. Coast Guard hazardous materials investigators went out on a county fireboat and located a miles-long black plume several miles offshore, the memo said.

Ultimately the cause of the leak was traced to a pipeline owned and operated by Houston-based Amplify Energy. The line ferries oil from the company’s three offshore platforms. Amplify is being scrutinized for its maintenance of the pipe and whether it reacted fast enough to the spill.

Meantime, federal investigators are examining whether the Panama-registered MSC DANIT, a 1,200-foot (366-meter) container ship, was dragging anchor during a Jan. 25 storm and snagged the pipeline and dragged it on the seabed. It’s not known why the leak occurred eight months later.

Authorities also are looking into whether other anchors hit and weakened the pipeline or if a preexisting condition with the line was to blame.

The Coast Guard says about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of oil spilled. Blobs of oil and tar balls washed ashore, forcing a weeklong closure of beaches, which greatly disrupted the local economy, and killing dozens of birds. Environmental advocates say the damage was less than initially feared but the long-term impact on wetlands and marine life is unknown.

Pete Stauffer, environmental director for Surfrider Foundation, which is working as a liaison between non-governmental agencies and the unified command for the spill response, said a swift response to a spill is key to limiting damage.

“When there’s a report of a significant-sized oil slick on the ocean, it’s important to investigate,” Stauffer said. “What happens in the first hours and days during an oil spill is absolutely critical.”

A group of environmental organizations demanded Wednesday that the Biden administration suspend and cancel oil and gas leases in federal waters off the California coast.

The Center for Biological Diversity and about three dozen organizations sent a petition to the Department of the Interior, arguing it has the authority to end these leases and that the decades-old platforms are especially susceptible to problems because of their age. The agency declined to comment.


Melley reported from Los Angeles.