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Ship's anchor seen as possible cause for massive oil spill in Southern California

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County to support the response to the oil spill that originated in federal waters.

Authorities are investigating if a ship’s anchor may have struck an off-shore pipeline in Southern California, sending at least an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and leaving officials struggling to prevent an “ecological disaster.”

Martyn Willshire, chief executive of the Houston-based energy company that owns the pipeline operator, told reporters Monday that the theory is a “distinct possibility.”

A U.S. Coast Guard official said authorities are looking at “exactly where those vessels are” that may have struck the pipeline, which connects to a processing platform 17.5 miles offshore.

Ships carrying cargo to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — two of the busiest in the United States — may drop their anchors while awaiting entry, the official said, though they’re guided and monitored while in transit.

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jeannie Shaye said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange County.

“The state is moving to cut red tape and mobilize all available resources to protect public health and the environment,” Newsom said Monday night. “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.”

Earlier, officials said the slick had grown to nearly 25 miles, stretching from Dana Point to Huntington Beach.

The city and state beaches at Huntington Beach were closed, and the city of Laguna Beach, just to the south, said late Sunday that its beaches also were shuttered. The shutdown came amid warm weather that would have brought big crowds to the sand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away.

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the beaches of the community nicknamed “Surf City” could remain closed for weeks or even months. The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky black globules.

Newport Harbor was closed to vessel traffic to prevent oil from entering the harbor, according to a Newport Beach statement.

Fisheries in the affected area were also closed "to give time to investigate any impacts to fish," Foley said.

"Avoid fishing off piers, bridges, boats and docks, too," she added. A map showed waters up to 6 miles from the shore could have been tainted by the spill.

People were also advised not to try to capture oiled wildlife.

"You can end up chasing them back into the water, and they can die. So leave them alone," said Debbie McGuire, the executive director of the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center. People are advised to call officials if they see oiled wildlife.

"The least stress for these birds when we’re capturing them, the better because they’re already compromised, they’re oiled," McGuire said.

Video from the center showed staff treating birds in preparation for them to be transferred and cleaned.

Officials said Sunday that approximately 3,150 gallons of oil had been recovered from the water, adding that crews laid about 5,360 feet of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland.

But the toll on the local ecosystem was already evident.

“We’ve started to find dead birds & fish washing up on the shore," Foley tweeted Sunday.

A Monday statement from Amplify Energy noted that Beta Offshore, a subsidiary, "first observed and notified the US Coast Guard of an oil sheen approximately four miles off the coast in Southern California and initiated its Oil Spill Prevention and Response Plan."

"As a precautionary measure, all of the Company’s production and pipeline operations at the Beta Field have been shut down," the statement said.

But residents and business owners are wondering if the leak was addressed quickly enough. People who live and work in the area said they noticed an oil sheen and a heavy petroleum smell Friday evening.

As early as Friday evening, Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter, said “people were emailing, and the neighbors were asking, ‘do you smell that?’” By Saturday morning, boats were returning to the marina with their hulls covered in oil, he said.

Garry Brown, president of the Orange County Coastkeeper environmental group, decried a lack of initial coordination among the Coast Guard and local officials in dealing with the spreading oil slick.

“By the time it comes to the beach, it’s done tremendous damage," Brown said. "Our frustration is, it could have been averted if there was a quick response."

In 2014, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement fined Beta after "crude oil was released through the flare boom."

"A safety device was bypassed for reasons other than startup, maintenance or testing and was not properly flagged or monitored," records said.