HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Richard Beach stayed clear of the ocean for several days after an undersea pipeline leaked crude into the waters off Southern California, sending a foul smell across the shore.
A week later, the ocean remained off limits to swimming and surfing. But that didn't stop the 69-year-old from returning to the waves in Huntington Beach on Sunday with his bodyboard — until 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.
“The water's perfect,” Beach said. “Clear all the way to the bottom."
Huntington Beach and nearby coastal communities are still reeling from 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 Oct 2., a day after residents reported a petroleum smell in the area. The cause is 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 and shops that cater to them have been hurting.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said she hopes to reopen the ocean within weeks in the city of 200,000 people. But officials are testing the water to ensure it's safe before people are allowed back in. Popular surfing and swimming spots in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are also closed, and further south the water is open but signs are posted warning people about the spill.
In Huntington Beach, shops selling everything from bikinis and stars-and-stripes boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear are taking a hit. Marian Johnson, who owns “Let’s Go Fishing” on the pier, said sales have been 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 wound up diverting 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 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.