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What caused the California oil spill?

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People began smelling oil off the Orange County coast on Friday afternoon. By Saturday, an oil slick was visible, with boaters as well as dolphins and other marine life moving through it. Then Saturday night and Sunday morning, oil begin to wash onto beaches and marshland along the Huntington Beach coast.

There are many unanswered questions about the spill, and officials are calling for a full investigation. Here is what we do know:

What’s the origin of the leak?

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said a broken pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly caused the spill.

Elly, in federal waters off the Los Angeles County coast, began operating in 1980 and processes crude oil produced from two other platforms. Elly sits atop a large reservoir of oil called the Beta Field in waters overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

What do we know about the platform?

According to federal records, Elly is 8.6 miles off the coast and is connected by a short bridge to another platform called Ellen.

Elly is one of 23 oil and gas platforms installed in federal waters off of the Southern California coast, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Besides Elly, which is a processing facility, there are 20 others that produce oil and gas, and two are being decommissioned.

Elly is one of three platforms operated by the Beta Operating Company, which also operates platforms Ellen and Eureka nearby. Elly processes oil production from Ellen and Eureka.

A 1989 Times story described life on the Elly and Ellen for the workers who maintain the platform.

“The 40,000-square-foot, 13,400-ton Ellen and the 55,000-square-foot, 10,600-ton Elly (all platforms in the Beta Field have names beginning with the letter E ) are actually highly sophisticated buildings. A trip around them on foot, however, feels more like a stroll on an oil tanker or a submarine,” The Times reported. “Round the clock, 365 days a year, hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil flow up to the platforms, up from the huge natural reservoir beneath county coastal waters that is called the Beta Field by oil workers.”

The story quoted an official for the company saying “if a major malfunction occurs in any apparatus, there are red knobs placed strategically around the complex that, when pulled, can shut down the entire operation in less than 3 minutes.”

Have there been previous problems?

The offshore platform system has been linked to earlier leaks, including a 2,000-gallon spill that led to a federal fine in 2000.

The operator was fined $48,000 for improper calibration of a leak-detection system. The corroded pipeline carried oil, water and gas from platform Eureka to platform Elly, The Times reported about the 1999 incident.

Environmentalists have long decried the network of oil platforms off the California coast.

How much oil has spilled?

Officials say at least 130,000 gallons have spilled. As of Sunday morning, officials said the leak was patched but not completely stopped.

“The pipeline was leaking throughout the night,” Foley said. “I’ll have an update about the spillage later this afternoon.”

Do we have a timeline?

Here is what we know so far:

  • Residents said they began smelling oil Friday.
  • Then, on Saturday, Foley said Newport Beach’s mayor told her he was boating off the coast and went through a large slick.
  • At 12:18 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard put out a tweet saying it is “responding to an oil slick reported to be approximately 13 square miles in size, 3 miles off Newport Beach.”
  • Later in the afternoon, officials said they believed the spill could be contained and not reach land.
  • But Saturday evening, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach officials said the leak was “major” and that oil would reach the coast that night. Huntington then closed beaches.
  • Then oil began appearing on the beach later that night.
  • At 11:07 p.m., the Coast Guard tweeted: “A unified command consisting of Beta Offshore, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response has been established to respond to an oil spill off the coast of Newport Beach.”
  • Early Sunday morning, officials canceled the final day of the Pacific Airshow.

How does this compare to other recent California spills?

The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 spewed an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an slick 35 miles long along California’s coast and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

Following the spill, the region became ground zero for some of the most significant conservation efforts of the 20th century.

The Santa Barbara spill was the worst in the nation’s history — until 20 years later, when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska.

The Orange County coastline was hit by a major disaster three decades ago.

On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor in relatively shallow water off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude and fouling popular beaches along the Orange County coast. The oil killed fish and about 3,400 birds.

In 2015, an oil pipeline ruptured north of Santa Barbara and sent 143,000 gallons of crude oil flowing onto Refugio State Beach, with some of it getting into the ocean. Tar balls from the leak were found as far away as Manhattan Beach.

That spill forced the closure of Refugio and El Capitan state beaches and covered rocky shores, sandy beaches and kelp forests with oil. According to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which was involved in recovery efforts, 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the spill.




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