HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - The company that operates the pipeline suspected in one of California’s largest oil spills has been cited 72 times for safety and environmental violations that were severe enough that drilling had to be curtailed or stopped to fix the problem, regulatory records show.
In all, Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.
The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity, and a separate incident when crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.
Huntington Beach, CA - October 03: Detail of oil flowing through the Talbert Channel, gathering on an absorption boom that helps stop the flow into the ecologically sensitive Talbert Marsh as a major oil spill washes ashore at Huntington State Beach
Beta, which is a subsidiary of Houston-based Amplify Energy, is under scrutiny after a suspected leak in an underwater pipeline sent 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude into the ocean waters, fouling the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.
Environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.
"It’s much better than we had feared," he said at a news conference Monday.
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Ziccardi said he’s "cautiously optimistic," but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.
Amplify operates three oil platforms about 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a 16-inch pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to be coming from a rupture in that pipeline about 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) from the platform.
Before the spill, Amplify had high hopes for the Beta oil field and was pouring millions of dollars into upgrades and new "side track" projects that would tap into oil by drilling laterally.
"We have the opportunity to keep going for as long as we want," Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said in an August conference call with investors. He added there was capacity "up to 20,000 barrels a day."
Investors shared Willsher’s optimism, sending the company’s stock up more than sevenfold since the beginning of the year to $5.75 at the close of trading on Friday. The stock plunged more than 40% in morning trading Monday.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and emerged a few months later. It had been using cash generated by the Beta field and others in Oklahoma and Texas to pay down $235 million in debt.
Some residents, business owners and environmentalists questioned whether authorities reacted quickly enough to contain the spill. People who live and work in the area said they noticed an oil sheen and a heavy petroleum smell Friday evening.
Booms were deployed on the ocean surface Sunday to try to contain the oil while divers sought to determine where and why the leak occurred. On land, there was a race to find animals harmed by the oil and to keep the spill from harming any more sensitive marshland.
But it was not until Saturday afternoon that the Coast Guard said an oil slick had been spotted and a unified command established to respond. And it took until Saturday night for the company to shut down the pipeline.
Rick Torgerson, owner of Blue Star Yacht Charter, said on Friday evening "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 environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper, 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. Our frustration is, it could have been averted if there was a quick response," said Brown, who lives in Huntington Beach.
Some of the oil washed up on the shores of Orange County. The city and state beaches at Huntington Beach were closed, and late Sunday the city of Laguna Beach, just to the south, said its beaches also were closed.
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.
"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," Carr said. "We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats."
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said the pipeline and the company’s three platforms were shut down Saturday night. The 17.5-mile (28.16-kilometer) pipeline that is 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 meters) below the surface was suctioned out so no more oil would spill while the location of the leak was being investigated.
Crews led by the Coast Guard-deployed skimmers laid some 3,700 feet (1,128 meters) of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre (10-hectare) wetland officials said.
The oil will likely continue to wash up on the shore for several days and could affect Newport Beach and other nearby communities, officials said.
The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.
The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales.
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