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California oil spill investigation widens as officials look for cause of pipeline rupture

While officials still believe an anchor strike was involved, they say it could have happened months ago.
Image: Oil spill cleanup
Workers with Patriot Environmental Services pick through the sand looking for pieces of oil south of the pier in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Friday.Paul Bersebach / The Orange County Register via AP

Investigators are looking at shipping activity going back a year to help determine what caused the recent Southern California oil spill, officials said Friday.

The pipeline that transports oil from platforms off Huntington Beach to the Port of Long Beach shows signs of an aged anchor strike and damage that's been present for so long, there's marine growth present, said Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.

A portion of the pipeline's concrete shell has been knocked off, exposing the steel pipeline, he said at a news conference. Growth in the area indicates they aren't dealing with a fresh strike, he said.

"This event could be multiple incidents and strikes of the pipeline" following an "initial event we’re pretty confident occurred several months to a year ago," Neubauer said.

The pipeline's operator, Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Amplify Energy Corp., said the leak began Saturday, and a survey it conducted in October 2020 indicated the pipeline was in good shape.

Neubauer said investigators will look at a stormy late January, when a ship could have inadvertently dragged an anchor. They'll also review possible "geological events" as factors, he said.

A fracture in the pipeline doesn't appear to be the result of a direct anchor strike, Neubauer said, adding that an anchor or anchors dragging the pipeline could have indirectly caused the breach.

The pipeline moved 105 feet at most, and the crack is 13 inches, Neubauer said.

"It’s definitely possible that the anchor would break away the rigid concrete casing, and the pipe itself would bend," he said.

The focus remained on shipping traffic headed to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, he said.

"I’m convinced ... the initial event that deflected the pipe itself was an anchor strike," Neubuaer said.

The pipeline leaked an estimated 144,000 gallons of heavy crude into the Pacific Ocean, prompting initial coastal and fishing closures from Huntington Beach south to the San Diego County line.

Shoreline cleanup teams combed Orange County beaches Friday, and crews monitored southern beaches as the ocean's current moved in that direction, according to the spill response unified command.

A total of 35 oiled animals, including 10 dead, have been recovered so far, according to an oil spill wildlife report updated by researchers from the University of California, Davis.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Orange County.