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Oil spill sends dead birds, fish onto California beaches: This map shows how big it really is

As oil slick threatens California coastline, the Coast Guard and energy company seek the source of ruptured underwater pipeline.

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Southern California beaches are closed and coastal cleanup continues as up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil from a ruptured undersea refinery pipeline began washing ashore this week.

Amplify Energy, which operates the pipeline, sent a remotely operated vehicle to check sections about 4 miles off Huntington Beach, California, near Los Angeles.

It's not yet known what caused the breach, but officials are looking into whether a ship’s anchor may have struck the pipeline. Authorities say an anchor may have dragged and ripped the pipeline about 5 miles from shore.

The Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet long, was anchored a few miles out at sea last week while awaiting access to one of the area's crowded ports. 

Hapag-Lloyd, the company that owns the massive cargo ship, says its ship was not involved in the environmental calamity and has been cleared by investigators for any involvement.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency investigating the spill. The National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that it also would review the leak.

Workers deployed oil-absorbing booms to contain the spill, which will continue to come ashore for weeks, officials said. Dead birds and fish have been found on the shore.

The leak created an oil slick of about 13 square miles after it was discovered Oct. 2, according to Laguna Beach officials. That’s about half the size of New York’s Manhattan island.

The 41-year-old San Pedro Bay pipeline, more than 17 miles long, connects two offshore platforms, known as Elly and Ellen, to a pumping station in Long Beach. Ellen is a drilling and production platform; Elly processes oil. The pipeline also is connected to a third platform, Eureka, which produces oil and gas.

The platforms and pipeline are operated by Beta Offshore, which is owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy, one of the largest oil producers in southern California.

The pipeline is part of a large oil-processing operation in an area known as the Beta Field, a major source of undersea oil about 9 miles offshore in the Gulf of Santa Catalina. It was discovered in 1976, and oil production began in 1981.

On Sunday, tarry globs washed ashore and tides pushed oil into fragile wetlands that provide habitat for 90 species of birds and other wildlife. Miles of beach were lined with necklaces of black oil. The last day of the air show was canceled and the public was politely but firmly asked to stay away. Nearly all of Huntington Beach's coast was closed, and so was the northern half of Newport Beach's sands.

The oil spill is California's latest in a series of significant environmental disasters:

1969: On Jan. 28, a Union Oil drilling rig platform off Santa Barbara experienced a blowout – an explosion caused by an uncontrolled oil or gas release – that spilled 4.2 million gallons of crude oil.

1971: On Jan. 19, two oil tankers collided in dense fog in San Francisco Bay, spilling 800,000 gallons of bunker fuel, a type of fuel oil used aboard ships.

1990: On Feb. 7, the oil tanker American Trader spilled more than 416,000 gallons of crude oil near Huntington Beach, killing an estimated 3,400 birds.

2007: On Nov. 7, the container ship Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay.

2015: On May 19, a pipeline ruptured and spilled 100,000 gallons of crude oil  into the ocean at Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County.

Source: USA TODAY Network reporting and research; Associated Press; Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; City of Huntington Beach; onepetro.org; Amplify Energy; California Coastal Commission

Contributing: Stephen Beard, Janet Wilson, John Bacon, Christal Hayes, Javier Zarracina, and Shawn Sullivan.

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