Southern California oil spill could be ‘ecological disaster,’ take weeks to clean up

Federal and state investigators are focusing on a 41-year-old pipeline as the cause of a massive oil spill off the Southern California coast. The 126,000 gallon oil spill is threatening wildlife and prompting a robust cleanup effort in the Pacific Ocean. But as Stephanie Sy reports, the scale and scope of the damage remains unclear.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Federal and state investigators are focusing on a 41-year-old pipeline as the cause of a massive oil spill off the coast of California.

    The spill is threatening wildlife and prompting a robust cleanup effort in the Pacific.

    But, as Stephanie Sy reports, the scale and scope of the damage remains unclear.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A calm day on the water betrays an unfolding catastrophe, some of the first victims, the California coast's ever-present seals, slicked in oil.

    Booms and skimmers have been deployed to contain and clean up the some 126,000 gallons of oil spilled from an underwater pipeline into the Pacific Ocean on Saturday. Today, officials said oil can be seen overhead from Orange County's Huntington Beach all the way down to Dana Point.

    Local officials warned, some beaches would be closed for weeks or even months.

    Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley described the scene to reporters on Sunday.

  • Katrina Foley, Orange County, California Supervisor:

    I was there for a few hours today, and even during that time, I started to feel a little bit of — my throat hurt. And you can feel the vapor in the air.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Orange County's Health Care Agency has asked residents to refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, and gathering.

    The area known as Surf City is closed and mostly empty, but for volunteers picking up tar balls.

  • Scott White, Cleanup Volunteer:

    I'm picking this up, and then I'm going to take it to a disposal center, as much as I can carry right now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amplify Energy says they are still trying to locate where on their pipeline the suspected leak occurred. The pipeline began leaking roughly four miles off the shore and was shut down on Saturday night.

    Martyn Willsher is the CEO of Amplify Energy.

  • Martyn Willsher, CEO, Amplify Energy:

    We will do everything in our power to ensure that this is recovered as quickly as possible. And we won't be done until this is concluded.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For Californians, the spill is just the latest environmental punch.

    Kim Carr, Mayor of Huntington Beach, California: Preventing an ecological disaster.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kim Carr is the mayor of Huntington Beach, where, by today, the oil had already infiltrated Talbert Marsh, a large ecological reserve.

  • Kim Carr:

    We are in the midst of a potential ecological disaster. Our wetlands are being degraded, and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Oil spills kill wildlife. Heavy oil can smother animals. And when seabirds get oil in their feathers, the birds can't stay warm. They die of hypothermia.

    It's one of the worst spills Southern California has seen in recent history. The last major spill was in 2015 near Santa Barbara, when a ruptured pipeline dumped 2, 400 barrels onshore and into the ocean.

    As the cause of this oil spill is investigated, people who live and work near Huntington Beach reported smelling oil as early as Friday, leaving many to ask whether officials responded quickly enough to contain the spill.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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