HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—The pipeline that leaked tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the water off Southern California may have been caught by a ship’s anchor and torn as it was apparently dragged along the ocean floor, authorities said Oct. 5.
Federal transportation investigators said preliminary reports suggest the failure may have been “caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear.”
The break in the line occurred about 5 miles offshore at a depth of about 98 feet (30 meters) beneath the surface, the investigators said, again citing preliminary findings. Those findings were included in a Tuesday order from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The order blocks the company from restarting the pipeline until it carries out extensive inspections and testing to make sure the line is sound.
The order did not identify the source of the investigators’ information, and agency officials did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said divers determined about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) of the pipeline was “laterally displaced” by about 105 feet (32 meters). She did not say what might have caused it to move.
In addition, the pipeline had a 13-inch (33-centimeters) gash in it, Ore said.
The head of the company that operates the line said the pipe was displaced into “almost a semicircle.”
“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bow string. And so at its widest point, it is 105 feet away from where it was,” Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said at a news conference.
Officials said Monday that they were considering whether a ship’s anchor might have caused the oil spill that has fouled beaches in Orange County. There was no confirmation Tuesday that the leak was caused by an anchor.
The Coast Guard did not investigate initial reports of an oil spill for nearly 12 hours because it did not have enough corroborating evidence and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology, an official told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday.
Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer acknowledged that the Coast Guard was alerted Friday night by a “good Samaritan” that there was a sheen on the water. Penoyer initially said the Coast Guard put out a broadcast to the many cargo and tanker ships anchored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, along with oil rigs, seeking more information but did not receive any response.
At a news conference later, Ore disputed that and said the Coast Guard did not broadcast any information to ships or oil platforms.
Penoyer said it was common to get reports of a sheen near a busy seaport. It would take more than 12 hours before an oil pipeline company reported a spill that could be up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude.
“In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at that time,” Penoyer said. “So putting yourself in the position of what they did know, this is a very normal process.”
Two early calls about the spill came into the National Response Center, which is staffed by the Coast Guard and notifies other agencies of disasters for quick response. The first was from an anchored ship that noticed a sheen on the water. The second came six hours later from a federal agency that said a possible oil slick was spotted on satellite imagery, according to reports by the California Office of Emergency Services.
The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude into the ocean off Huntington Beach, and it then washed onto miles of beaches and a protected marshland. The beaches could remain closed for weeks or longer, a major hit to the local economy. Coastal fisheries in the area are closed to commercial and recreational fishing.
Federal and state authorities require rapid reporting of a spill. Failure to do so has led to criminal prosecutions of companies, including Plains All American Pipeline, which caused a coastal spill near Santa Barbara in 2015, and Southern California Gas Co. for a massive well blowout later that year.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley expressed concern that the company could withhold evidence. But the county’s emergency manager, Michelle Anderson, reassured the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the Coast Guard was on the scene as well to make sure the probe is independent.
“It is an investigation with objective parties involved, so that we will eventually know the outcome,” Anderson said.
Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area. Backlogs have plagued the ports in recent months, and several dozen or more of the giant vessels have regularly been anchored as they wait to enter the ports and unload.
A 2016 spill response plan for the Amplify platforms submitted to federal regulators called for immediate notification of federal officials when more than one barrel of oil is released into the water. Releases greater than five barrels—or that threaten state waters or the shoreline—require immediate notification of the state fire marshal and California wildlife officials.
The pipeline was supposed to be monitored under an automated leak detection system that would report problems to a control room staffed around the clock on the oil platform known as Elly.
The system was designed to trigger an alarm whenever a change in the flow of oil is detected. But how fast it can pick up on those changes was expected to vary according to the size of the leak. For a large leak—10 percent or more of the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline—the detection time was estimated at five minutes. Smaller leaks were expected to take up to 50 minutes to detect, according to the response plan.
The spill plan warned that a break in the pipeline could cause “substantial harm to the environment” and that in a worst-case scenario 3,111 barrels (131,000 gallons) of oil could be released from the pipeline.
Willsher said required agencies were notified “instantly” when the company recognized the leak was from its pipe. Records show the spill was not reported by Amplify Energy, but by Witt O’Brien’s, a crisis and emergency management firm listed on the spill response plan as the point of contact to notify the NRC.
The report said the leaking pipe had been shut off, but containment was not confirmed.
Potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the Orange County district attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.
Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost.
By Brian Melley, Matthew Brown, and Stefanie Dazio