State officials vie to improve response after O.C. oil spill

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California officials on Monday said better communication and detection technologies could improve the state’s response to an oil spill like last month’s crude pipeline leak off the Orange County coast.

State lawmakers held an oversight hearing in Costa Mesa to review the response to the spill of about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of crude. The impact of the spill was less than initially feared, but it affected local wetlands and wildlife and shut the shoreline in surf-loving Huntington Beach for a week.

Charlton “Chuck” H. Bonham, director of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, recommended pushing up an oil spill technology workshop from 2023 to next year and focusing on improving night-time spill detection. Initial reports of a possible spill came in late in the day Oct. 1. But federal officials said it was too dark and went out early the next morning to confirm it.

“What we haven’t done yet is crack the technology,” Bonham told lawmakers at the hearing convened by the Assembly’s Select Committee on the Orange County oil spill. “It is near impossible to figure out a dark sheen in the dark of night on the dark ocean surface.”

Bonham also said trying to find a place to host the incident command slowed the response. He added that collecting fish samples sooner could help reduce the length of fishery closures, noting more than 645 square miles (1,671 square kilometers) off the coast are still off limits to fishing pending testing.

The hearing came six weeks after the leak in a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. that ferried crude from offshore platforms to the Southern California coast. The cause of the spill is under investigation, but federal officials have said the pipeline was likely initially damaged by a ship’s anchor.

Amplify said in a statement Monday that the company expects insurance policies will cover some spill costs but “can provide no assurance that its coverage will adequately protect it against liability from all potential consequences, damages and losses related to the Incident.”

During the hearing, other speakers suggested having more streamlined communications would make it easier to respond to a spill more quickly and wanted to ensure local communities have oil response plans. Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said there was conflicting information in the early hours, with officials initially saying they didn’t expect oil to reach the coast for days. But it washed up hours later.

“It really is minutes, it’s hours, that make a huge difference,” she said. Carr said thankfully the city had a response plan and equipment to protect sensitive wetland areas.

Orange County Harbormaster Capt. Gary Lewellyn said he would like to see an early reporting system for coastal communities to quickly share information about potential hazardous materials on the water so local officials can assess what resources are needed. State fire officials said more can be done to inspect low-pressure pipelines, which aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny, to prevent future spills.

Democratic Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who chairs the select committee, said her office will review the recommendations and see what state officials can do on their own and what requires legislation. She said improving spill-detection technology and regulations on low-pressure pipelines are critical in the short term, but in the long run California needs to phase out offshore oil operations.

“In the short term, I want to identify regulatory changes, policy changes, we can get done in the next couple of months,” Petrie-Norris said, adding the committee will meet again in January. “Alongside that, we all know that the only way to prevent this with 100% certainty is to end offshore drilling and oil production.”

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