California Oil Spill 'Environmental Catastrophe'

Habitat for local and migrating birds has been destroyed.

Major Oil Spill Fouls Southern California Beaches
Cleanup workers in Talbert Marsh, which is home to about 90 bird species. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Dead birds and fish are washing up on the shores in Orange County, California, after thousands of gallons of oil leaked from a broken pipeline into the Pacific Ocean over the weekend.

The oil spill created a 13-square-mile slick just a few miles off the coast from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach. Some 126,000 gallons of oil—3,000 barrels—leaked from a facility operated by Beta Offshore.

As of Sunday, approximately 3,150 gallons of oil were recovered from the water and 5,360 feet of boom had been deployed, according to the United States Coast Guard. Booms are temporary floating barriers used to contain oil spills.

Fourteen boats were conducting recovery operations on Sunday and four aircraft were performing overhead assessments.

Impact on Wildlife

According to the Coast Guard, one ruddy duck covered in oil was collected from the spill and is receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated,” according to a news release.

There are reports on social media from people and news crews who have seen birds covered in so much oil they can’t fly and oil-soaked fish on the beaches.

“Went for my morning walk on the beach this morning and it’s closed from the oil spill and there’s tons of birds covered in oil they can’t fly and barely walking. Just so sad!!” posted Sherri Britton of Huntington Beach in a community message board.

Oil has floated into Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve that is home to about 90 species of birds. Thousands of migrating birds also use the reserve as a rest stop on their long treks to warmer climates.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley told CNN dead birds and fish were washing up on the shore.

"The oil has infiltrated the entirety of the (Talbert) Wetlands. There's significant impacts to wildlife there," she said. "These are wetlands that we've been working with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the Land Trust, with all the community wildlife partners to make sure to create this beautiful, natural habitat for decades. And now in just a day, it's completely destroyed."

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife set up a hotline (877-823-6926) for people to call if they spot wildlife affected by oil. People are urged not to approach wildlife. 

Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center is mobilizing volunteers who are already trained in working with oil spill rescue efforts. The group is also accepting donations in order to purchase emergency supplies.

The Surfrider Foundation is also working on cleanup and recovery efforts. The group is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the world’s coasts.

“The highly toxic oil spill is causing devastating impacts to wildlife, the marine environment, and the coastline — which will also trigger significant economic and recreational impacts,” the foundation posted on Facebook.

'Potential Ecological Disaster'

Parts of Huntington Beach were closed over the weekend and the last day of a major airshow was canceled due to the spill and cleanup efforts. The city of Newport Beach issued an advisory, asking people to avoid contact with ocean water and oiled areas of the beach. All Laguna Beach city beaches have been closed to the public.

The Orange County Health Care Agency issued an advisory urging people to avoid recreational activities on the beach in the area and asking them to seek medical attention if they've come in contact with the oil spill.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a fisheries closure for coastal areas affected by the spill.

At a press conference over the weekend, Kim Carr, the mayor of Huntington Beach, called the spill an “environmental catastrophe” and a “potential ecological disaster,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” said Carr. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”

Beta Offshore is owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy. The company said that employees first noticed a sheen on the water and notified the Coast Guard. While the source of the leak is determined, the company’s production and pipeline operations have been shut down.

An Expert Weighs In

Dyan deNapoli took part in rescue efforts in 2000 when 20,000 African penguins and about 1,000 cormorants were caught in an oil spill off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa.

"Because penguins are flightless birds, rescuers are able to capture them much more easily than flighted birds," deNapoli tells Treehugger. Penguins are more affected by oil spills than many other birds because they can't fly over an oil slick to avoid it.

"They end up swimming through it, thus getting oiled. So, when an oil spill is near a penguin colony, large numbers of penguins are sure to be oiled. Flighted birds have better odds of evading an oil slick at sea."

DeNapoli says that there are drawbacks and benefits to the oil spill in California being so close to the coast. More birds may be affected because so many species spend much of their time near the coastline, she says. On a positive note, being near the coast may help with rescue efforts.

"Some oiled birds may instinctively head for shore—where they can then be caught more easily by rescuers," she says. "Oiled birds will often haul out of the water, because the thick oil on their bodies impacts their ability to thermoregulate. The fuel oil prevents their feathers from being able to insulate them properly, and they become hypothermic, and birds may head to shore to get out of the water."

However birds will typically keep attempting to fly to avoid being caught and can exhaust themselves, making a healthy recovery more challenging, she says.

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