Cleanup crews combing Shaws Cove and Crescent Bay on Wednesday, days after a large oil spill off the Orange County coast, didn’t see widespread oiling on the beaches, city officials said.
The federal and state officials leading the cleanup effort didn’t find enough oil on those beaches to fill a single plastic bag, a sign that Laguna has so far avoided being inundated like its northern neighbors.
The oil officials found was at North Crescent Bay beach.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s initial assessment also found fine particulate matter remaining on Pearl Beach and Picnic Beach. This residue may not be visible but can be felt when walking barefoot on the beach.
Satellite imagery provided by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration shows the plume of oil floating south off San Clemente and San Onofre. Officials have warned the plume’s direction could change with the return of onshore winds.
Environmentalists have raised concern about oil plaguing Laguna’s kelp forests, reefs, rocky perches, and other elements of the fragile Marine Protected Areas.
The spill, which was first reported Friday night, sent about 144,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. The pipeline break was discovered about 5.5 miles off Seal Beach, Coast Guard spokesperson Steve Strohmaier said.
To date, 5,544 total gallons of crude oil have been recovered, according to the Coast Guard-led Unified Command.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County on Monday to marshal additional resources to contain and clean up the spill. County officials issued a similar declaration a day later.
“The state is moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment,” Newsom said in a press release. “As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment.”
The Laguna Beach City Council also declared a local state of emergency Tuesday, which will help city officials recoup the cost of staff overtime and contractors working on oil spill response. City Manager Shohreh Dupuis is authorized to execute contracts of up to $500,000 without having to request council approval. She’s also authorized to send letters supporting recovery efforts.
More than 400 people are conducting cleanup operations with 1,500 people expected to be deployed by Friday.
“The ocean is so fragile and we’re all on the same page on this,” Whalen said. “It’s a crisis and we have to respond to it like that.”
Whalen hasn’t lived through a major oil spill landing on the city’s shores since he moved to town in 1985, he said. In trying to process the news, his mind went to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that’s credited with being the genesis of the modern environmental movement.
The exact cause and timing of the spill are under investigation. Diver reports and footage from remote-controlled submarines show a 4,000-foot section of a nearly 18-mile pipeline was moved about 105 feet and had a 13-inch split along its length.
State officials are monitoring the coastline for oiled wildlife. Laguna Beach lifeguards have also been patrolling city beaches for signs of oil and unhealthy birds.
Nineteen oiled birds had been recovered alive and five were found dead as of late Wednesday, UC Davis Veterinary Medicine reports.
On Sunday night, the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife ordered the closure of Orange County fisheries to protect the public from eating fish and shellfish impacted by oil. The closure encompasses the coastal area from Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach to Crown Valley Parkway in Dana Point, including the shorelines and all bays and harbors between these points. The fishery closure also extends six miles offshore.
A group of Top of the World Elementary Elementary students rallied this week to raise money for wildlife affected by the oil spill. They stood outside Laguna Beach Fire Station No. 3 near TOW Elementary before school Monday through Wednesday. They’ve raised about $2,500 of a $3,000 goal to support the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center of Orange County.
Garry Brown, founding director of Orange County Coastkeeper, said the spill is a reflection point for the nation.
“We pay a heavy price for oil in California. Oil spills, refinery fires, and climate change. It is time to move to renewables,” Brown wrote in an email. “In the meantime, we need to improve and refine our emergency oil spill response. The faster containment booms are deployed, the less environmental damage is caused.”
Cargo ships, which have remained lined up off the Orange County coast amid a nationwide shipping and logistics backlog, were anchored on Wednesday near an oil platform called Elly. Officials say the platform is connected to the pipeline that ruptured, sending oil into the ocean.
The Coast Guard is investigating the possibility that a cargo ship’s anchor may have dragged the pipeline across the ocean floor.
No oil was seen in the area on Wednesday, but multiple dolphin pods were swimming off the Port of Long Beach. Sea lions that usually haul out onto sections of the oil platform had left.
Orange County marine biologist Nancy Caruso said she’s deeply worried about an environmental catastrophe if large quantities of oil come ashore in the Marine Protected Areas.
“I’m praying every single day that it doesn’t come ashore again,” Caruso said. “Every single piece of rock, every kelp reef, any piece of everything has to be cleaned and we have a lot of surface area.”
Most wildlife doesn’t live through oil exposure, Caruso said, especially stationary and slow-moving organisms like kelp, anemones, sea cucumbers, and abalone. Fish will generally try to swim out of the way but once it touches their skin the compounds enter the bloodstream.
Birds can sometimes survive if the oil sticks to their feathers but “if it’s all over their feet and skin, it’s not a good outcome,” she said.
The spill comes less than a week after Newsom signed Assembly Bill 63, authored by Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), which changes state law to allow Caruso and other marine biologists to restore kelp forests off Laguna Beach. This restoration work was illegal in Marine Protected Areas due to an overlooked technicality.
The fear of watching poisoned kelp fall the ocean floor is deeply personal for Caruso, who spent 12 years leading hundreds of volunteers in planting kelp beds off Laguna Beach.
“It’s a devastating blow to our ecosystem and in our lifetimes we will continue to see the impacts,” Caruso said. “This is preventable, that’s the worst part.”