New information about a massive oil spill contaminating miles of the Southern California coastline has raised questions about the speed of response as state officials race to contain the damage Tuesday.
The spillage of up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil, caused by a ruptured pipeline, has forced shut several of California's famed beaches, killed wildlife and threatened local wetlands. It has prompted California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency and called into question California's environmental protection efforts.
Investigators have identified a ship's anchor that damaged the pipeline as a possible cause behind the spill, which left an estimated 15.67 miles of oil slick along the shorelines of Orange County, media sources said Tuesday.
Authorities said the pipeline was split open and apparently dragged more than 100 feet along the ocean floor. Preliminary reports from federal transportation investigators suggest the failure may have been "caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear," the Associated Press has reported.
According to an official press release, divers examining the source of leak discovered that a 4,000 feet section of the 17.7-mile-long pipeline was laterally displaced by approximately 105 feet. The pipeline also has a gash of 13 inches. It's unclear at this point what exactly caused the displacement.
As more information has surfaced, it has now become apparent that officials were made aware of the oil spill on Friday evening, nearly 24 hours before the public was told about it.
The National Response Center was notified of "an unknown sheen of unknown source" on Friday evening, officials said in the press release, adding that "these types of reports are common, and, in many cases, the sheen reported can be natural seepage of oil or sheen that is never located".
Satellite images from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) captured possible oil slicks extending for more than 30 miles along Huntington Beach on Friday night. The imagery was reported to agencies early Saturday morning, the release said.
The Coast Guard did not investigate initial reports of an oil spill for nearly 12 hours because it didn't have enough corroborating evidence and were hindered by darkness and a lack of technology, an official told the AP Tuesday.
Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer said "a good Samaritan" notified the Coast Guard about a sheen on the water Friday night. He said reports of a sheen near busy seaports are a common occurrence.
"In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn't know that at that time. So, putting yourself in the position of what they did know, this is a very normal process," Penoyer said.
The Newport Beach Police Department started receiving numerous calls from local residents about the smell of gas wafting in the air last Friday evening, the Los Angeles Times reported. A community advisory was sent by the department at around 7:45 pm to inform the public that authorities were checking it out.
It wasn't until Saturday evening that local officials announced a major oil spill and closed beaches. At 11: 07 pm Saturday, the Coast Guard tweeted: "A unified command consisting of Beta Offshore, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response has been established to respond to an oil spill off the coast of Newport Beach."
In the meantime, a military airshow, which began on Friday and drew around 1.5 million visitors to the beach on Saturday, went on as planned. It was scheduled to run through Sunday afternoon but was cancelled early Sunday morning.
K.C. Lewis, a Long Beach resident who regularly visit the dog beach in Huntington Beach, told the Times that he heard talk on Friday and Saturday about "some kind of environmental dump" in the water, but "no one could confirm anything".
"If they warned us earlier, or just gave us a small idea, a lot more people might have stayed out of the ocean and not helped to spread the oil or carry it home," he said.
Rebecca Ore, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, told reporters Tuesday that the Coast Guard launched an "initial investigation" after receiving information about the sheen Friday night. But the investigation was "inconclusive" in determining whether the sheen was related to an oil spill. She said authorities sent aircraft at first light Saturday to assess the situation.
The spill came from a broken pipeline running from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform named Elly. It is located on the top of Beta Field, a large reservoir of crude oil, which sits in waters overseen by the US Department of the Interior.
The parent company of the pipeline's operator is Houston-based Amplify Energy. According to officials, the company confirmed with them the release of oil from pipeline Saturday morning.
As of Tuesday, 4,788 gallons of crude oil have been recovered and six miles of shorelines have been cleaned, officials said.