Massive oil spill off Orange County coast shuts down beachfronts, air show

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A massive oil spill off the Orange County coast has prompted the closure of beachfront areas from the Huntington Beach Pier down to Newport Beach, city officials announced early Sunday morning.

The slick, which was first reported on Saturday afternoon, is thought to come from a pipeline leak connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly and seeped into nearby Huntington Beach, including in Talbert Marsh, which is home to about 90 species of birds, according to the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

Officials on Sunday said they’ve measured a 5.8-mile oil plume running from the Huntington Beach Pier to Newport Beach, and was reported to be “approximately 13 square miles in size.”

On Sunday morning, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley told KTLA that oil was still leaking about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach from the platform Elly, operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach, Calif., unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy. 

Martyn Willsher, president and CEO of Amplify Energy, said later on Sunday that the flow of oil had been halted, according to the Associated Press.

Willsher added that his company is focused on “getting everything rectified, remedies and recovery efforts,” as well as looking into the origins of the leak.

“It had been well-maintained through pandemics and whatnot, so we need to investigate how this happened,” Willsher said.

Platform Elly sits in federal waters off the Los Angeles County coast and processes crude oil production from two other platforms. It’s on top of a large reservoir of crude oil known as the Beta Field, which sits in waters overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The oil washed ashore in sticky, black globules and seeped into the Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland in Huntington Beach, officials said.

“Given the oil spill impacts, the decision was made by both the City and the State to close the ocean from the Pier all the way down to the Santa Ana River jetty,” officials stated.

Authorities are urging people to avoid the beach areas around Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

“The spill has significantly affected Huntington Beach, with substantial ecological impacts occurring at the beach and at the Huntington Beach Wetlands,” officials said in a statement.

The oil spill has also prompted the cancelation of the final day of the Great Pacific Airshow. Officials say the decision to cancel the popular event was made so that the city, along with the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies, could focus on the cleanup and investigation of the 126,000-gallon oil spill.

"In order to facilitate clean-up efforts, and given the potential health impacts, the decision has been made to cancel the final day of the show due to yesterday's spill," officials said in a statement. "We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you in advance for your understanding."

Wesley Meacham, an Irvine resident, said he and his family woke up at 3 a.m. to catch the final day of the air show, only to find out that the event was canceled.

"I was pretty bummed. We woke up at 3 in the morning and got ready to come to the air show," Meacham said. "We got here and we were told that it was canceled because of the oil, and I was just thinking how unlucky we were to have an oil spill on the day we were supposed to come."

The 5th annual air show began Friday morning at the Huntington Beach Pier and drew about 1.5 million visitors to the beach on Saturday. The event was scheduled to run through Sunday afternoon.

"The City acknowledges the gravity of the decision to cancel the final day of the iconic Pacific Airshow, and the disappointment that this decision will cause," officials stated. "However, the need for prompt and intensive intervention efforts requires complete and unfettered access to the marine environment."

Foley urged people to avoid any water activities and stay away from the coast.

"Please do not go in the water. I see that there are still some people out here fishing," Foley said. "This is a toxic area. You should not be fishing out here, and we should stay at least 50 feet from the shore."

By Sunday afternoon, Huntington Beach city officials said crews have deployed over 2,000 feet of skimmers and floating barriers known as booms at seven wetland locations in an attempt to corral the oil.

Foley added that the county has received reports of fish and birds washing up dead on the shore.

"We're asking people to avoid going to the beach and to not touch the animals... because it is toxic," Foley said.

Dr. Clayton Chau, the O.C. Health Care Agency's County Health Officer, issued a health advisory on Sunday to encourage anyone who's encountered materials from the slick to seek medical attention.

The effects on humans "may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill," Chau said.

“An initial irritation will be obvious. Additionally, contaminants may be absorbed through the skin. Even when an oil sheen may not be visible, dispersed and dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water,” Chau said. “Please contact your family physician or call 911 if you are experiencing adverse symptoms. Currently, we are asking residents to please refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering, etc.”

Officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are asking residents to not attempt to help the animals affected by the oil spill, and to report any animal sightings to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 877-823-6926.

As of Sunday night, Newport Harbor remained open, though city officials asked that boaters "avoid traversing the oil spill as it may cling to vessels and could bring oil into the harbor," the city announced on Twitter.

Many area beaches, however, are closed as of 9 p.m. Sunday, Foley announced on Twitter.

"The city of Laguna Beach is now closing their beaches tonight," Foley said, adding that county-run beaches in Laguna Beach city limits — Aliso Beach, Laguna Royale, Tablerock Beach, Thousand Steps Beach and West Street Beach — will also be closed.

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