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Closed to the public. Photo: Tom Cozad

“We’re Not Going To Be Surfing For A While.”

Details about the Orange County oil spill and what it means for surfers.

news // Oct 8, 2021
Words by August Howell
Reading Time: 6 minutes

You’ve heard the news. You’ve seen the footage. Hopefully, you’ve pitched in to help (see bottom of page). 

Now, it’s time to learn what’s going on in Southern California after a horrendous oil spill.

Sometime between October 1 and October 2, at least 144,000 gallons (about 3,111 barrels) of crude oil oozed into the Pacific Ocean after a pipeline failure five miles from Huntington Beach, resulting in a 17-square-mile slick spreading its way to nearby beaches. 

Newport Beach native Tyler Gunter, fresh off a ninth-place finish at the U.S. Open last month, was walking his dog Saturday night when the air smelled “so gnarly, like tar and oil.” Still, he thought he’d be able to surf the following morning. 

“I got down to the water’s edge and it was just covered in black. I saw birds walking around with oil all over them,” Tyler said. “That’s when everyone in the community knew, ‘Oh crap, we’re not going to be surfing for a while.’”

Some outlets have said that there were reports of oil sheen on Friday night, but the pipeline operator, Amplify Energy Corp., didn’t notify the U.S. Coast Guard until the following morning. Amplify stated a pressure drop alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, but it didn’t shut down the pipeline until nearly four hours later and didn’t alter the officials for  an additional two hours. Investigators believe that the leak likely occurred when a cargo ship’s anchor struck a patch of the 17.5-mile pipe that connects to a pumping station in Long Beach. 

Where it happened. Photo: LA Times

In response, local health officials closed beaches at several Orange County cities on Sunday. In Huntington, beaches are closed between the Santa Ave River Jetty and Seaport Street. Laguna Beach and Dana Point have also closed their beaches. Newport Beach has an advisory warning to avoid the water along portions of the beach. Meanwhile, Newport Harbor and Dana Point Harbor are closed to boat traffic. 

Because the full scope of the damage won’t be realized for some time, estimates vary on when the beaches and water will be safe again. Tony Soriano, a coordinator for Surfrider’s Huntington Beach chapter, noted that the Huntington Beach City Council on Monday indicated the beaches could be closed between two weeks to two months. 

That’s a long time, especially in the middle of the best time of the year to be an Orange County surfer.

“I’ve been hearing a bunch of stuff, but I think the more realistic option is probably a couple of weeks,” Tyler said when asked about the reopening timeline. “One of our city council members posted on Instagram saying it’s going to be a while. They don’t have a timetable for when they can open the harbor or let people go to the ocean. It’s definitely a bummer because conditions are as good as they get, and we have swell coming.”

Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, said the situation felt ‘surreal’ after witnessing an empty Huntington Beach lineup on Tuesday, with three-to-four-foot peaks going unridden up and down the coast. 

Patriot Environmental Service, on the scene. Photo: Tom Cozad

“There was not a single person on the beach or in the water, other than guys with hazmat suits,” he said.

The spill is threatening Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve and coastal wetland that stores water and mitigates flooding, and is home to an estimated 90 bird species. Dead fish and birds are washing ashore in some places, and there are reports of marine mammals in oil. According to the UC Davis Veterinary School, 15 oiled birds have been found and two have died as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Unlike your typical beach cleanup day, there is only so much the concerned but untrained individual can do. You don’t need to be a crude oil expert to know it’s a shitshow to clean up. Because of the oil’s high toxicity, Surfrider is discouraging people to actively participate in the cleanup effort or help wildlife without proper training and gear. 

“I think people are frustrated that they can’t help, and we’ve had thousands of people express interest,” Chad said. 

That’s right, the oil is so bad that the organization most prepared to mobilize volunteers on the ground is asking them to stay away, for now. Because the oil is treated with other chemicals to get it through pipelines, the OC Healthy Care Agency issued a health advisory on Monday recommending that anyone who comes in contact with it should seek medical attention. 

“Crude oil is different than motor oil,” said Tony, a lifelong surfer who saw firsthand the damage from the 2015 spill at Refugio, just north of Santa Barbara, when an onshore pipeline rupture spewed out 140,000 gallons of oil. “Motor oil isn’t going to kill you, but crude oil has all sorts of toxins in it that can be harmful, with fumes that can be hazardous to your health and skin. That’s why they say don’t go out there and be the hero.”

Swell is coming, but surfing will be out of the question Photo: Tom Cozad

Surfrider, which has opposed new offshore drilling for two decades, is working with U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies who are responding to the incident. Tyler Gunter said Newport Beach has contracted Patriot Environmental Service to clean the beaches, and he saw a crew of 30-40 people in hazmat suits raking the beaches on Tuesday. 

Sadly, these kinds of disasters are not new to Southern California. It’s not Huntington Beach’s first bout with it, either. In 1990, an oil tanker ruptured its hull and coasted the shore from Seal Beach to Newport Beach with 400,000 gallons of oil. Numbers-wise, this latest spill is not as bad, said Tony, who recalled when the 1990 spill closed beaches for months. The U.S. Department of Energy said some of the biggest oil fields in the country are off the California coastline. But statewide production has been falling for decades and accounts for less than 4 percent of the nation’s total, according to the New York Times

“It’s an inevitable outcome of our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Chad. “California is one of the most strictly regulated states in the world, and we’re still getting spills all the time.”

In 1969, a little more than 100 miles north of the current spill, Santa Barbara experienced the worst spill in state history when the platform spewed an estimated three million gallons (around 80,000 to 100,000 barrels) over 10 days just six miles off the coast, contaminating the waters from Ventura to Goleta and a portion of the four Channel Islands. The incident prompted public outrage and legislation that paved the way for the county’s modern environmental movement in the early 1970s.

You can’t fix this overnight.

There are federal laws in place to make those responsible for spills to pay for restoration, but it’s a lengthy legal process. In the Refugio settlement, the pipeline operator paid a $22 million settlement in October 2020, five years after the spill, to restore natural resources damaged by it. 

“We’re on day four of what’s going to take weeks, months, and years,” Chad said. “It’s important for folks to know that we’re going to be dealing with this in different shapes for a long time to come.”

Tyler asks those interested in helping to stay tuned for more information and to donate whatever they can to professional services.

“It’s not something that’s going to end overnight,” he said. “Our cities are going to be impacted by this for months to come, from the economy to wildlife to the sanctuary. Find a good place to donate or give supplies too because it’s going to be brutal.” 

Ways to get involved: 

Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Amplify Energy are posting updates here

If you’re interested in volunteering for upcoming clean-up opportunities, please text ‘oilspill’ to 51555. Surfrider will add you to a volunteer list and you’ll receive updates on other ways to help. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is registering volunteers for training. 

If you find oiled or sick wildlife, call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6962. If you’re not trained to handle wild animals, you can do more harm than good trying to help them. 

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center needs gloves, N95 masks, syringes, feeding tubes, and collapsable plastic or cardboard containers for carrying animals. 

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