Southern California beach set to reopen after oil spill

Local officials worry about the environmental impact of the spill on the wetlands, wildlife and the economy

A Southern California beach that had been closed since an undersea pipeline leaked crude into ocean waters last week is set to reopen on Monday, the officials announced on Sunday night.

The city and state beaches in Huntington Beach, California will reopen after the water quality tests revealed no detectable levels of oil associated toxins in the ocean water, the Huntington city and the California State Parks said in a news release.

They are still urging visitors to avoid areas that smell of oil and not to touch any oiled materials that washed ashore.

This news is likely to please beach-goers like the 69-year-old Richard Beach, who returned to the waves in Huntington Beach on Sunday with his bodyboard — until the lifeguards on jet skis chased him out.

He trekked back across the beach, passing workers in hazmat suits tasked with clearing the sand of sticky, black blobs that washed ashore after the spill. He had previously stayed clear of the ocean after the oil leak sent a foul smell across the shore.

“The water’s perfect. Clear all the way to the bottom,” said Beach.

The Huntington Beach and the nearby coastal communities have been reeling from the last week’s spill that officials said sent at least about 25,000 gallons (95,000 liters) and no more than 132,000 gallons (500,000 liters) of oil into the ocean.

It was caused by a leak about 5 miles (8 kilometers) offshore in a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy that shuttles crude from offshore oil platforms to the coast.

The spill was confirmed on October 2, a day after the residents reported a petroleum smell in the area.

The cause of the spill is still under investigation and officials said they believe the pipeline was likely damaged by a ship’s anchor several months to a year before it ruptured. It remains unknown when the slender, 13-inch (33-centimeter) crack in the pipeline began leaking oil.

On Sunday, there was no smell of oil and the sand looked largely clear by the Huntington Beach pier, where workers combed the sand for tar. But local officials worry about the environmental impact of the spill on wetlands, wildlife and the economy. With the ocean off limits in the community dubbed Surf City USA, relatively few people were at the beach. The shops that cater to them have been hurt.

The officials in the city of 200,000 people have been testing the water to ensure it’s safe before people are allowed back in. Popular surfing and swimming spots in the Newport Beach and the Laguna Beach are also closed, and further south the water is open but signs warning people about the spill are posted.

In the Huntington Beach, shops, selling everything from bikinis and stars-and-stripes boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear, have been taking a hit. Marian Johnson, who owns “Let’s Go Fishing” on the pier, said sales have halved since the spill.

Mike Ali, who owns the nearby shop Zack’s, said he understands the reason for the water closure but had to shut three of his four locations and slash his workers’ hours. People are coming in for bike rentals and food to his one store that remains open, but without surf lessons, event catering and beach bonfires’ business has tanked 90%, he said.

“It could be a year to two years to get the tourism to come back,” Ali said, adding that a 1990 oil spill ended up diverting the would-be visitors to beaches south and north of the city.

Rich Toro, 70, still took his regular 25-mile (40 kilometers) bike ride down to Huntington Beach on Sunday. But he said he wouldn’t race to get back into the water in light of the spill and worries about the impact on wildlife.

Since the incident, officials have reported 26 dead birds and eight dead fish, while 24 oiled birds have been recovered and are being treated.

But the closures haven’t stopped everyone. In the Huntington Beach, a handful of early morning surfers were shooed from the water by lifeguards.

And while fishing is barred along the shore of virtually all of Orange County, Michael Archouletta, 29, said he came down from East Los Angeles and saw no signs on the pier preventing him from dropping a line. A school of fish swam beneath the pier nearby.

“If this was so dangerous, the fish would be dead,” Archouletta said.

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