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A 13-inch tear in a pipe was likely the source of a California oil spill. Here’s how it may have gotten there

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

Authorities believe they have identified the source of an oil spill off the California coast that has shuttered beaches and threatened wildlife. But as more information is revealed about the ecological emergency, more questions arise.

The source of the spill that spewed up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean likely came down to a 13-inch split found in a 4,000-foot section of the pipe that had been pulled about 105 feet to the side, authorities said.

“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bow string. And so at its widest point is about 105 feet away from where it was. So, it is kind of an almost a semicircle,” Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said at a news conference Tuesday.

The discovery may provide insight into the source of the leak, but not the cause. Authorities are still investigating what precipitated the displacement and split in the pipe.

The 17-mile long, 41-year-old pipeline is about 98 feet under water. About 16-inches in diameter, the steel pipe is encased in concrete as it lays along the ocean floor.

A preliminary report indicates the partial tear could have been caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a notice to Amplify Energy, the owner of the ruptured pipeline.

There is no confirmation of a vessel above the site of the spill, but a response team is working with other agencies to determine whether a ship was in the area, said Capt. Rebecca Ore, the commanding officer at US Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach.

In the transportation department’s “corrective action order,” Amplify Energy is directed to shut down the affected pipeline entirely, provide maintenance and inspection records, and complete a root cause failure analysis, among other requirements. Only then can it submit a plan to resume operation.

Investigation into the timeline

Authorities investigating the leak also sought Tuesday to clarify the timeline of when authorities and the pipeline company learned about the spill and what they did in response.

The Unified Command said the National Response Center first received a report of an unknown sheen of unknown source Friday evening.

“These types of reports are common and in many cases, the sheen reported can be natural seepage of oil or sheen that is never located,” the Unified Command said in a news release. “NOAA satellite imagery was reported to agencies early morning reporting a possible oil anomaly.”

Crews from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response went to investigate before sunrise, but conditions were foggy and the crew returned to shore, authorities said.

“The Coast Guard and Orange County Sheriff deployed at first light once fog lifted to investigate. A Coast Guard aircraft was diverted to support the investigation. On Saturday morning, the company confirmed a release of oil from a pipeline,” the Unified Command said.

The timeline confirms that California authorities were notified late Friday of reports of an oil sheen at the site of the spill, more than 12 hours before Amplify Energy Corp., the operator of the line, reported it to state and federal officials, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

At a news conference Monday, Amplify’s Willsher said a sheen was detected by company personnel Saturday morning, not Friday night. Willsher said while there is equipment to detect a leak without visibly seeing oil spills, there were no notices of a potential leak in the line before Saturday.

“We were not aware of any spill until 8:09 a.m. on Saturday morning,” Willsher told reporters Wednesday when pressed about the timeline. “I promise you. If we were aware of something on Friday night … I promise you we would have immediately stopped all operations.”

The transportation department’s “corrective action order” said the off-shore control room received a low-pressure alarm — indicating a “possible failure” — at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday. The pipeline was shut down three hours later, just after 6 a.m. The accident was reported to the National Response Team three hours after the shutdown, according to the order.

The timing is important because of how many people were potentially impacted by the spill on Saturday, said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.

“There were hundreds of boaters out on the Huntington Beach coast because we had an air show,” Foley said. “There were hundreds of boaters coming back and forth from Catalina to Orange County.”

Cleaning up the devastation

Huntington Beach once had a sign reading “Surf City USA.” A new sign Monday read “Beach open, Ocean and Shore closed.”

On one beach section, workers in hazmat suits and rakes cleaned up tar balls from the spill, while beach-goers and their dogs ran between them.

And a little farther south, teams in white hazmat suits worked to protect the fragile wetland ecosystem near the mouth of the Santa Ana River — a crucial habitat for migratory birds that is now wrapped in shimmering oil ribbons.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency due to the spill. “The state is moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment,” he said in a statement.

The spill, which stretches from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach, is likely to move farther south based on wind and currents, the Coast Guard’s Ore said.

The spill is just the latest such incident to hit California’s shores, including the 1969 spill of as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara. Locally, Huntington Beach bore the brunt of a 1990 spill of about 417,000 gallons of crude oil when an oil tanker ran over its anchor and punctured its hull.

The current spill’s volume pales in comparison to the most serious oil spills in history, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (11 million gallons) and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico (134 million gallons).

As of Tuesday morning, about 4,800 gallons of oil had been recovered from the water and about 11,400 feet of boom — a term for floating barriers designed to contain an oil spill — had been deployed.

Dead birds and fish have already washed ashore, according to Foley, who has been providing updates on Twitter.

“This has devastated our California coastline in Orange County, and it’s having a tremendous impact on our ecological preserves as well as our economics,” Foley told CNN. “We need answers and the public deserves answers.”

Eight birds have been recovered from the oil spill, according to OWCN, including a brown pelican that was euthanized because of a wing injury.

For some, this latest incident is a sign of a need for change to protect the environment.

“As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities,” Newsom said Monday. “Destructive offshore drilling practices sacrifice our public health, the economy, and our environment.”

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Amir Vera, Cheri Mossburg, Stella Chan, Susannah Cullinane, Claudia Dominguez, Chris Isidore, Julia Jones, Eric Levenson, Sara Sidner, Sarah Moon, Alta Spells, Joe Sutton, Sonnet Swire, Camila Bernal and Anna-Maja Rappard contributed to this report.

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