‘Catastrophic’ California oil spill kills fish, damages wetlands and closes beaches

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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (NewsNation Now) — A massive oil spill off the California coast left fish dead, birds covered in petroleum and wetlands contaminated with oil, in what local officials are calling an environmental catastrophe.

An estimated 126,000 gallons of heavy crude leaked into the water, and some washed up on the shores of Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday when boaters began reporting a sheen in the water, officials said.

Crews led by the Coast Guard deployed skimmers and laid some 3,700 feet of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland, officials said. The city and state beaches at Huntington Beach were closed, and late Sunday the city of Laguna Beach, just to the south, said its beaches also were shuttered.


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Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the beaches of the community nicknamed “Surf City” could remain closed for weeks or even months.

Carr called the spill an “environmental catastrophe” and a “potential ecological disaster.”

The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky black globules with the beachside city, about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, carrying the brunt of the spill.

The spill was caused by a breach connected to the Elly oil rig and stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier down to Newport Beach, an area popular with surfers and sunbathers.

Crews deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Oil is shown washed up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Oil is shown washed up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Heavy machinery is used to build sand barriers to contain oil washed up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A broken floating device is trapped in oil washed up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors unload collected oil in plastic bags trying to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors unload collected oil in plastic bags trying to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors unload collected oil in plastic bags trying to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors collect oil in plastic bags trying to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Cleanup contractors deploy skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday., Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A posted traffic sign announces an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday., Oct. 3, 2021. One of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A posted sign warning about water contact may cause illness is posted by life guards after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Vessels with the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) vessel, background, an oil spill removal organization (OSRO), deploy floating barriers around the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Pelicans fly over the beach after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Vessels with the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) vessel, background, an oil spill removal organization (OSRO), deploy floating barriers around the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A posted sign warning that water contact may cause illness, is posted by lifeguards after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday., Oct. 3, 2021. Vessels with the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) left background, an oil spill removal organization (OSRO), deploy floating barriers around the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history. The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules along with dead birds and fish. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Lifeguards ready to post signs warning that water contact may cause illness, as they close the beach after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday., Oct. 3, 2021. The closure stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier nearly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty amid summerlike weather that would have brought beachgoers to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Vessels with the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), an oil spill removal organization (OSRO), deploy floating barriers around one of the largest oil spills in recent Southern California history in Huntington Beach, Calif. The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules along with dead birds and fish. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Patches of an oil spill wash off the beach south of the Pier in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. The closure stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier nearly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty amid summerlike weather that would have brought beachgoers to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Lifeguards close the beach after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. The closure stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier nearly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Carr said. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”

Some birds and fish were caught in the muck and died, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said. But by early afternoon Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard said so far there was just one ruddy duck that was covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.

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The leaking pipeline connects to an oil production platform named Elly, which in turn is connected by a walkway to a drilling platform named Ellen. Those two platforms and another nearby platform are in federal waters and owned by Amplify Energy Corp.

A petroleum stench permeated the air throughout the area. “You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Foley said.

Some people who live and work in the area said they noticed an oil sheen and a heavy petroleum smell Friday evening. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that the Coast Guard said an oil slick had been spotted and a unified command established to respond. And it took until Saturday night for the company that operates the pipeline believed responsible for the leak to shut down operations.

Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter said on Friday evening “people were emailing, and the neighbors were asking, ‘do you smell that?’” By Saturday morning, boats were returning to the marina with their hulls covered in oil, he said.

NewsNation’s Adrienne Bankert spoke with Long Beach residents Christi and Rick Von Heydenriech on Morning in America.

“This is devastating. We go to the beaches as often as possible, we are in the water all the time. Our friends fish and surf, you know that’s our life,” Christi Von Heydenriech. “We are concerned with the wildlife too. We were sick about our boat but when we got home we realized this is huge, this is so much bigger than our little boat.”

You can watch the full interview below:

Elly began operating in 1980 in an area called the Beta Field. Oil pulled from beneath the ocean and processed by Elly is taken by the pipeline to Long Beach.

Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said the pipeline and three platforms were shut down Saturday night. The 17.5-mile pipeline that is 80 to 100 feet below the surface was suctioned out so no more oil would spill while the location of the leak was being investigated.

The oil will likely continue to wash up on the shore for several days and affect Newport Beach and other nearby communities, officials said.

The closure included all of Huntington Beach, from the city’s north edge about 6 miles south to the Santa Ana River jetty. The shutdown came amid summerlike weather that would have brought big crowds to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away.


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The Coast Guard, along with local and state agencies, flew airplanes and deployed boats to assess the spill. They also hired contractors to help with the cleanup. As of Monday morning, aout 3,150 gallons of oil have been recovered from the water, the Coast Guard said.

Officials said they were investigating the cause of the spill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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