O.C. oil spill: Cargo ships’ movements near rupture site raise questions

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A Brazilian cargo ship crossed over the now-ruptured pipeline off the Orange County coast near where it broke the same day it began leaking, KTLA has learned, while authorities are investigating unusual movements made by another ship.

The Coast Guard is investigating whether a ship anchor might have snagged and bent the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles.

KTLA compared the exact GPS coordinates of the pipeline breaking point with ship tracking data. It appears around 8 a.m. Friday, a Brazilian container ship crossed over the pipeline almost exactly near the point where it broke and spilled tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

The cargo ship remained parked off the coast Wednesday.

Officials are still working to determine what exactly caused the spill, but the ship’s path could become part of the investigation.

“We have no idea if that vessel was dragging anything on the seafloor as it passed over that might have snagged the pipeline and damaged it,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, which helped KTLA track the ship. 

The Associated Press reviewed more than two weeks of data from MarineTraffic, a navigation service that tracks radio signals from transponders that broadcast the locations of ships and large boats every few minutes.

That data shows the Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet long, was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. The ship made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it over the pipeline.

In a statement to AP, Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, denied any role in the spill.

A U.S. official told the AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in the early stages.

The investigators are seeking to collect tracking and navigational information from the vessel that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also seeking preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.

The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesperson, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express but said the agency is analyzing electric charting systems from its vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the spill area.

The MarineTraffic data shows the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the Port of Long Beach early on Sept. 22 and dropped anchor about 2,000 feet from the pipeline.

The following day, at about 5 p.m., the data for the ship’s locator beacon indicated that while anchored it suddenly moved thousands of feet to the southeast, a track that would have taken it over the pipeline lying on the seafloor about 100 feet (30 meters) below. The ship appears to have then engaged its engines to return to its anchorage about 10 minutes later.

The ship then moved again around midnight and a third time shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 23, each time moving back to its assigned anchorage, according to its online location data. The Rotterdam Express remained at spot SF-3 until Sunday, when it moved into the port to unload.

The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline were made Friday evening.

Many questions remain unanswered.

Investigators are also looking at the response by the pipeline company, Amplify Energy Corp. Its emergency response plan for a rupture depended heavily on a quick shutdown — but that’s not what happened.

After an alarm went off in a company control room at 2:30 a.m. Saturday — signaling a rupture that would spill tens of thousands of gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean — the company waited more than three hours to shut down the pipeline, at 6:01 a.m., according to the preliminary findings of an investigation into the spill.

The Houston-based company took another three hours to notify the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center for oil spills, investigators said, further slowing the response to an accident for which Amplify workers spent years preparing.

“How come it took so long? That’s a fair question,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant and private accident investigator from Redmond, Washington. “If you have any doubt, your action should be to shut down and close. … Something’s not quite right here.”

It’s uncertain why that process dragged out hours in San Pedro Bay, potentially worsening a spill that left some birds coated with oil and has stirred worries about broader environmental impacts.

Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher refused to directly answer questions about the alarm when pressed on the issue by reporters Wednesday. He repeated his assertion that the company didn’t learn of the spill until a boat saw a sheen on the water at 8:09 a.m..

“We are conducting a full investigation into that to see if there’s anything that should have been noticed,” Willsher said. He said the pipeline already was shut down by 6 a.m. Saturday, then re-started for five minutes for a “meter reading” before it was shut down again. Willsher did not say when it had been initially shut down or why.

The spill is prompting fresh calls for an end to such drilling into federal waters off California’s coast. But that’s easier said than done.

 While the state hasn’t issued a new lease in state water in five decades, drilling from existing platforms continues. Similarly, an effort in Congress that aims to halt new drilling in federal waters — more than 3 miles off the coast — wouldn’t stop drilling that’s already happening.

Speaking from Huntington Beach on Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged it’s easier to resist new drilling than to wind down what already exists.

“Banning new drilling is not complicated,” he said. “The deeper question is how do you transition and still protect the workforce?”

Today, there are 19 oil and gas agreements in California’s coastal waters and 1,200 active wells. In federal waters, there are 23 oil and gas production facilities off the state’s coast.

California remains the nation’s seventh-largest oil producing state, and winding down the state’s oil production has proved politically difficult. The industry employs more than 150,000 people, and the state makes money from oil and gas leases.

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