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In early March, the Orange County coastline suffered yet another oil spill due to California’s deteriorating offshore oil and gas infrastructure. While the size of this spill is much smaller than the Amplify oil spill catastrophe of 2021, any unjust harm to our coast is unacceptable. Oil companies and government agencies must swiftly decommission these aging and inefficient offshore platforms before our coastal ecosystems and communities suffer further oil spills.

As with the 2021 oil spill, Orange County Coastkeeper aims to be a resource for accurate information about the incident. The following information comes directly from the agencies involved in spill response, including the U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), and Huntington Beach Lifeguards.

Last Updated: March 17, 2024 at 8:00 p.m.

What Happened

On March 7th, at 6:26 pm, a sheen was reported to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) near Platform Emmy, approximately a mile and a half offshore from Huntington Beach. Initially mistaken for a sewage spill, the Coast Guard’s flyover on March 8th confirmed the presence of an oil sheen.

Swift cleanup efforts over the weekend saw crews recover around 85 gallons of oil in the water and 1,050 pounds of oily waste and tar balls from the shoreline. The Coast Guard conducted another flyover on March 10th and found no visible sheen offshore, suggesting most of the pollutant was recovered or had dissipated. Tar balls continue to be observed, reported, and removed along the shores of Huntington Beach.

The total amount of spilled oil into the ocean remains uncertain.

Impact on Wildlife, Recreation, and Fisheries

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network and The Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center recovered 14 live oiled birds between March 8 and 16, four of which died or were humanely euthanized. Oil samples were analyzed from 11 birds and 10 were consistent with the oil sheen event the week prior. The 11th bird is believed to have been oiled from natural seepage. In addition, five visibly oiled dead birds were recovered. Samples were analyzed from two thus far and were more consistent with natural seep than the oil sheen event. As of March 17, ten birds remain in care, eight of which have been washed.

Impacted bird species include Brandt’s cormorants, common loons, western grebes, and western snowy plovers; specific numbers for each species have not been made available. Beachgoers are urged to be aware of potentially oiled wildlife and report sightings to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 1-877-823-6926.

No beach or ocean water closures were deemed necessary, and Unified Command did not express concerns about fish contamination, resulting in no fisheries closures or cautions. Long-lasting impacts on our coastal ecosystems are unknown and will be difficult to quantify.

Finding the Source of the Spill

Preliminary laboratory results from OSPR indicated that the oil is lightly weathered crude oil, not a refined product like gasoline or diesel. The testing also revealed consistency with local crude oil, eliminating the possibility of a spill from imported oil brought by ship. Despite some early inaccurate media reports, the lab results also ruled out natural seepage as a likely cause due to the weathering of the oil. However, the samples did not precisely match archived samples from nearby platforms such as Emmy and Eva, leaving the exact source of the spill unknown. With the current data available, the spill is likely related to offshore drilling, though it can not be entirely proven. Coastkeeper is hopeful that a more comprehensive investigation will reveal what or who is responsible for this spill.

Next Steps

The recent oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach underscores the pressing need to reevaluate our reliance on offshore oil and gas operations. The infrastructure is deteriorating, and productivity is plummeting. The risk to California’s coastal ecosystem and economy is not worth the constant threat these structures pose. Orange County Coastkeeper urges policymakers and the public alike to push for responsibly retiring California’s offshore infrastructure to prevent more harmful oil spills.