Major Oil Spill Off the Coast of Southern California Has Dolphins Swimming Thru the Oil

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Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

A broken pipeline off the coast of Orange County, California, has crews scrambling to contain a major oil spill that’s left crude oil all over local beaches, threatening local wetlands and killing wildlife.

After a pipeline less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) off the coast ruptured on Saturday, 126,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into coastal waters near Huntington Beach, according to a public advisory from the Huntington Beach Police Department. As of Sunday afternoon, the oil slick plume measured an estimated 5.8 nautical miles (10.7 kilometers) long, running from the Huntington Beach pier into Newport Beach.

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

The area is home to several threatened and endangered species, including the western snowy plover and the bald eagle. Humpback whales and dolphins are also frequently spotted in its waters. In a Sunday tweet, Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley said Newport Beach’s mayor told her he spotted “dolphins swimming thru the oil.”

By sunrise on Sunday, the sands of Huntington State Beach were stained black with washed-up oil and littered with dead birds and fish, according to the Los Angeles Times. Oil has also seeped into Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland in Huntington Beach.

As clean-up efforts continue, officials closed off a nearly 4-mile (6.4 kilometer) stretch of oceanfront from the Huntington Beach pier to the Santa Ana River jetty over the weekend and canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Airshow set for Sunday. The fifth annual airshow kicked off Friday and drew an estimated 1.5 million people to the pier and surrounding coastline on Saturday.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is assisting state and county emergency response personnel, has declared the incident a major spill. Crews have deployed over 2,000 feet (0.6 kilometers) of protective booms at seven wetland locations, city officials said Sunday on Twitter. In the public advisory, Huntington Beach authorities said that “while the leak has not been completely stopped, preliminary patching has been completed to repair the oil spill site” with additional repairs planned.

“We’ve been working with our federal, state and county partners to mitigate the impact that could be a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach mayor Kim Carr said at a press conference Saturday evening via the Associated Press.

The oil spill’s source is a pipeline connected to the offshore oil platform known as Elly, Foley, the county supervisor, said on Twitter. Elly is one of three platforms operated by the Beta Operating Company in federal waters off the coast of Southern California, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Orange County, said the spill was “as tragic as it was preventable” in a press release Sunday.

“This environmental catastrophe highlights the simple fact that where you drill, you spill,” he continued. “As we are sadly witnessing, when you drill along the coast, when you pipe that oil ashore, our coastlines will bear the brunt of the impacts from such spills. This will be devastating not only to our marine wildlife and ecosystem, but also to the livelihoods of our coastal communities which are built around fishing, tourism, and recreation.”

We should get a better idea of the scope of the oil spill’s environmental impact as clean-up crews continue to work through Sunday and into the upcoming week. But if several miles of beach stinking of tar and petroleum are any indication, it’s bad.

“You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Foley told the Associated Press.