Federal regulators offer final word on oil spill off coast of Huntington Beach

Three safety-related improvements generated from the 2021 oil spill off the coast of Orange County soon could become operating procedures:

First, the minimum distance between a commercial ship’s anchor and any oil pipeline operating in the San Pedro Bay, including off the coast of Orange County and Long Beach, should be expanded. The current minimum is 500 feet and the suggested new distance is expected to be 1,500 feet.

Second, underwater alarm systems connected to oil pipelines could be beefed up so that they can better alert marine-traffic controllers when a ship anchor drops nearby, and similar improvements could be made nationally.

Third, oil operators should be urged to always follow protocols for training and for employee drug testing after a spill or rupture is discovered.

The National Transportation Safety Board first said it planned to seek those improvements in a preliminary report on the spill released in early December. And all three ideas made it into that report’s final draft, which was made public Thursday, Jan. 25.

The NTSB’s findings offer something of a last word on the Oct. 1, 2021 spill that put a relatively small amount of oil (about 588 barrels, or 25,000 gallons) into the ocean, yet still managed to cause significant damage to one of the nation’s most popular and profitable stretches of coast. Oil that leaked out of an underwater oil pipeline, broken at a point roughly 4.75 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, killed fish and other marine life, fouled local wetlands and closed commercial fishing and beaches from Orange County to as far south as San Diego.

The spill sparked national news about oil off the Orange County coast, damaging the region’s reputation. It also canceled the last day of the 2021 edition of the Pacific Air Show in Huntington Beach, a huge money-maker for the city and local businesses.

It also sparked lawmakers, in Sacramento and Washington D.C., to propose different ways to end or limit oil exploration off the Southern California coast – ideas that, so far, have not come to pass. Critics in the aftermath of the spill noted that drilling in San Pedro Bay produces a tiny sliver of the oil used nationally each year, while a clean ocean generates about $44 billion a year in private and public revenue for local governments and businesses, in addition to boosting real estate values throughout the region.

The NTSB’s final report on the spill confirmed several facts that have previously been settled in court or confirmed in other investigations.

For instance, the NTSB report describes the spill as the result of events that took place about nine months earlier, during a storm off the coast of Southern California on Jan. 25, 2021 – three years to the day before the release of the report.

During that storm, two container ships, the Beiijing and the MSC Danit, dropped anchors near the pipeline. When the rough weather (which the NTSB report described as “high winds and seas generated by a strong cold front,”) prompted the anchors to shift, the 40-year-old pipeline was dragged along the ocean floor and bent like a huge straw, weakening the metal to the point that it ruptured on Oct. 1, 2021.

Critically, the NTSB investigators said neither the pipeline’s owner, Amplify Energy, nor local marine-traffic control operators (an agency called Vessel Traffic Service Los Angeles-Long Beach) were told about the shifting anchors or the bent pipeline.

Investigators described that lack of communication as an indirect cause of the spill.

“Had the pipeline operator been made aware of the Beijing and MSC Danit ​​​​anchor dragging, the company could have conducted an underwater survey of the pipeline, identified the damage, and made repairs, preventing the eventual release of crude oil.”

The NTSB investigators also said the spill was as damaging as it was, in part, because of poor response by the pipeline operators.

Though workers first heard alarms about a possible rupture around 4:10 p.m. on Oct. 1, they spent the next 13 hours stopping and restarting the pipeline while troubleshooting what they believed to be possibly faulty alarms. They turned off the pipeline for a final time a little after 6 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 2. And about two hours after that, after a contractor vessel offered visual confirmation of the spill, they notified state authorities, a move required by law.

Those delays exacerbated damages from the spill, which cost about $160 million to clean up, the NTSB investigators wrote.

“Had the controllers responded in accordance with company procedure for a leak by shutting down and isolating the pipeline, they would have significantly reduced the volume of crude oil released and the resulting environmental damage.”

Those findings, and other claims, have all been aired in several lawsuits and criminal charges related to the spill.

In August 2022, Amplify pleaded guilty in federal court to a single charge of negligently dumping oil, a result of the company’s poor response between the first alarm, on Oct. 1, 2021, and notifying authorities 14 hours later. Amplify agreed to pay about $13 million to local governments and the U.S. Coast Guard, and to install a new leak detection system.

Amplify and its insurance carriers also agreed to pay $50 million to settle class action claims made by local fishing interests, tourism companies and homeowners, among others.

But last year, in a civil case filed by Houston-based Amplify, the shipping companies that dragged anchors into the pipeline agreed to pay $85 million to Amplify. Those companies also agreed to pay $45 million to the companies and homeowners covered in the class action.

It’s unclear when the ideas proposed in the NTSB’s final report will be implemented. The board is not a regulatory agency and, as such, its suggestions are treated as recommendations. But, following past events, NTSB recommendations on airline safety, rail operations and shipping have led to regulations or new operating procedures.

A video of public NTSB hearings from early December is available here.

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