California oil spill: Coast Guard investigating whether cargo ship that made unusual movements may have snagged pipeline
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether a massive cargo ship may have snagged and tore open an underwater pipeline that spilled as much as 144,000 gallons of oil into Southern California waters.
The cargo ship made a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles, according to data collected by a marine navigation service.
The Associated Press reviewed more than two weeks of data from MarineTraffic, a navigation service that tracks radio signals from transponders that broadcast the locations of ships and large boats every few minutes.
That data shows the Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet long, was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. The ship made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it over the pipeline.
In a statement to AP, Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, denied any role in the spill. A U.S. official told the AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in the early stages.
The new details were uncovered as part of one in a series of investigations into the spill, including questions about hours of delays in shutting off the pipeline, notifying government officials and alerts to the public.
The parent company of the pipeline, Amplify Energy Corp., could not explain Wednesday why federal regulators say it took hours for them to shut down the leaking pipeline and notify government officials.
CEO Martyn Willsher insisted the company wasn’t aware of the oil spill or issues with the pipeline until a sheen on the water was detected at 8:09 a.m. Saturday, even though federal regulators say the company's own systems signaled "a possible failure" in the pipeline when a "low-pressure alarm" went off at 2:30 a.m.
"We were not aware of any spill until 8:09 a.m. on Saturday morning. I promise to you, if we were aware of something on Friday night, I promise you we would have immediately stopped all operations," Willsher said.
The letter from federal regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation noted that no government agency was alerted to the oil for more than six hours, despite the company's own alarms going off. But Willsher described the account as an "initial report" that wasn't finalized.
"We are conducting a full investigation to that and working with . . . the other regulators to see if there was anything that should have been noticed," Willsher said to questions about the timeline lapse.
As Willsher was grilled for answers, the first federal lawsuit was filed against his company and its subsidiaries that manage the day-to-day workings of the oil pipeline and platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, where oil has been washing ashore for days — littering beaches with black crude and killing wildlife.
In the lawsuit, Peter Moses Gutierrez, a disc jokey, claims his company performs events frequently on the beachfront and will lose a "substantial amount of his DJ business" as a result of the spill and resulting closure of the beach. Gutierrez says he has been or will be exposed to toxins as a result of the spill.
Gutierrez seeks unspecified damages. Lawyer Greg Coleman said his firm's lawyers are working with Huntington Beach and surrounding communities to protect their legal rights.
"With this lawsuit, we hope to help them clean up their beaches and force the fossil fuel industry to clean up its act," Coleman said.
The suit names Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Amplify Energy.
Along with criticisms about how long it took for the pipeline to be shutdown, Amplify Energy and the U.S. Coast Guard have been scrutinized for the time it took in reporting the disaster.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a letter to Amplify it took more than six hours from its initial alarm about the pipeline's pressure failure for the company to report the spill to the 24-hour federal National Response Center, the designated federal point of contact for reporting all discharges into the environment. Immediate reporting is required by law.
Amplify’s spill-response plan also calls for immediate notification in the event of a spill. And Willsher insisted Wednesday that plan was followed and officials were immediately notified.
The Coast Guard also has drawn scrutiny as the public wasn't notified until Saturday afternoon to the spill — well after a host of reports were made about the severity. A Coast Guard official acknowledged the agency was alerted to a sheen on the water Friday night by a “good Samaritan” but did little until the next day.
Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer said Tuesday that the agency did not have enough corroborating evidence when the call came in and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology. Penoyer said reports of oil sheens are fairly common at major seaports.
“In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at that time,” Penoyer said.
The Unified Command to the spill response, led by the Coast Guard, said in a statement that hours after the good Samaritan report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said satellite imagery revealed "a possible oil anomaly." Crews from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s spill response team responded to the report before sunrise Saturday, but conditions were foggy and the crew returned to shore, the statement said.
"The Coast Guard and Orange County Sheriff deployed at first light once fog lifted to investigate," the Unified Command statement said.
It's not clear what impact the delays have had on wildlife.
Since the spill reached the shores of Huntington Beach late Saturday, officials have been working to both prevent added environmental damage and rescuing wildlife that had been impacted.
As of Wednesday, at least 17 birds had been rescued by crews and were being treated, including four snowy plovers — small coastal birds that are protected as a threatened species. Another two birds had been found dead. The full ecological impact of oil spills often take months or even years to assess, however.
Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said divers located a 13-inch split in the pipeline, running parallel to the pipe, that investigators suspect could be the source of the oil leak. The agency said the divers found a bend in the 17-mile-long, 41-year-old pipeline, possibly dragged by an anchor.
"The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bowstring," Willsher said. "Its widest point is about 105 feet away from where it was."
Preliminary reports suggest the failure may have been “caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear,” federal transportation investigators said.
Dozens of ships have routinely anchored offshore, awaiting access to ports plagued by COVID-19 and other issues that have slowed the global supply chain.
The investigators are seeking to collect tracking and navigational information from the Rotterdam Express that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also seeking preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.
The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesperson, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express but said the agency is analyzing electric charting systems from its vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the spill area.
The MarineTraffic data shows the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the Port of Long Beach early on Sept. 22 and dropped anchor about 2,000 feet (610 meters) from the pipeline.
The following day, at about 5 p.m., the data for the ship’s locator beacon indicated that while anchored it suddenly moved thousands of feet to the southeast, a track that would have taken it over the pipeline lying on the seafloor about 100 feet (30 meters) below. The ship appears to have then engaged its engines to return to its anchorage about 10 minutes later.
The ship then moved again around midnight and a third time shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 23, each time moving back to its assigned anchorage, according to its online location data. The Rotterdam Express remained at spot SF-3 until Sunday, when it moved into the port to unload.
Amplify Energy has 90 days to submit "root cause failure analysis" to federal officials supplemented by an independent third party documenting the decision-making process and the factors contributing to the failure.
"The final report must include findings and any lessons learned," the DOT letter says.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Contributing: The Associated Press