A massive oil spill off Southern California has local officials bracing for an "environmental catastrophe" as the Coast Guard races to clean up the leaked heavy crude oil and prevent it from further infiltrating the region's fragile marshlands.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said Sunday that cleanup efforts are focused on preventing an "ecological disaster," but some environmental advocates warn that irreparable damage has already been done.
"We've already seen oiled fish and birds wash up on shore," said Laura Deehan, the state director of Environment California, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for environmental legislation. "We know that when this thick, goopy oil gets into places, it's really hard to clean up."
An estimated 126,000 gallons of heavy crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, affecting nearly 25 miles of the coastline in Orange County from Dana Point to Huntington Beach.
The governor on Monday night declared 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,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Local officials said Sunday that oil seeped into Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetlands reserve that is one in a chain of marshes along Huntington Beach. Talbert Marsh is a crucial rest stop for thousands of birds as they migrate south over the winter, and it is home to around 90 species of birds throughout the year.
"A huge variety of seabirds, including egrets, gulls and the great blue heron, go there to feed, so it's of great and immediate concern that there are reports of oil in the wetlands there," Deehan said.
John Villa, the executive director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, said oil has also leaked into nearby Brookhurst Marsh and Magnolia Marsh, although the spills in all three wetlands are contained for now.
Inlets to the marshes are closed to prevent more contaminated saltwater from seeping in. Villa said the channels will eventually need to be reopened for life in the habitats to survive.
"If we don't get that saltwater coming in, then plants and animals are going to start dying in the water, because the water won't have enough oxygen in it," he said.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California, Davis, which is assisting with the cleanup, reported Sunday that a brown pelican and two other birds were recovered alive.
Still, it could be days or weeks before the extent of the impact on wildlife and marine ecosystems is understood, said Jacqueline Savitz, the chief policy officer of Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization.
"When oil gets into these wetlands, it's impossible to clean up entirely," she said. "What we've seen after major oil spills is that years later — and sometimes decades later — scientists go back and find traces of oil in the marshes."
The long-term effects of major oil spills, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, are still being studied. Scientists continue to see abnormalities in fish and other wildlife from exposure to the toxic chemicals.
Researchers have also warned of health impacts for humans if fisheries are contaminated or from exposure to oil during cleanup and recovery operations. A 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, which followed 88 people who participated in cleanup work after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, found an increased prevalence of symptoms seven years after exposure, including chronic cough, shortness of breath and chest pains.
Deehan said the oil spill should be "an urgent wake-up call" about the need for California and the rest of the country to make the transition away from the fossil fuel industry.
"Oil drilling and oil extraction is a dirty, dangerous business," she said. "There's never been a solar power spill. We need to move as fast as we can away from dependence on oil to a clean energy future."
Villa and his corps of volunteers at the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy will monitor the situation closely. He said the spill was disheartening for the organization, which for several decades has restored, expanded and maintained the wetlands around Huntington Beach.
"We're devastated," he said. "There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears over 35 years to keep these marshes as pristine as we can, and all that work can be ruined in the blink of an eye."