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.
According to marine navigation data, the cargo ship performed a number of strange movements as it anchored at the nearest spot of the Amplify Energy pipeline. Amplify Energy is a Houston-based company which operates three offshore oil platforms south from Los Angeles.
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.
This data indicates that the Rotterdam Express was a German-flagged vessel nearly 1000 feet in length and assigned anchorage SF-3. It is the closest location to the site where the pipeline burst off Huntington Beach. Three unusual movements were made by the ship over the course of two days, which appear to have put it above and beyond the pipeline.
Hapag-Lloyd (the shipping company which operates the Rotterdam Express) denied that it was involved in the spillage. The Rotterdam Express was a focal point of an investigation into the spillage, a U.S. representative told the AP Wednesday. According to the official, the only lead in the spill investigation is the ship. The rest are still being developed.
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 didn’t know there was a spillage until Saturday morning, at 8:09 am. 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.
According to U.S. Department of Transportation, the letter noted that oil alerts were not sent by government agencies for longer than six hours despite company alarms. But Willsher described the account as an “initial report” that wasn’t finalized.
“We’re conducting a thorough investigation into that matter and working with. This is. . 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.
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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 claims he was or will be exposed as a result.
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.
Coleman explained that he hopes to “help them clean up the beaches” and to force the fossil fuels industry to do better.
Beta Offshore is a subsidiary company of Amplify Energy.
Amplify Energy, the U.S. Coast Guard were also criticised for how long the pipeline took to shut down.
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. The law requires that immediate reporting be made.
Amplify’s spill-response plan also calls for immediate notification in the event of a spill. Willsher maintained Wednesday that the plan had been followed, and officials were notified immediately.
On Friday, a massive oil spillage in California was announced.Nobody told the many people who went to the beach.
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.
According to the Unified Command statement, “The Coast Guard deployed and Orange County Sheriff was sent at first light when fog lifted to investigate.”
The impact of delays on wildlife is not known.
Officials are working hard to prevent additional environmental damage from occurring and rescue any wildlife who was harmed since the accident on Saturday.
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. Two other birds were also found dead. However, it can take many months to determine the full environmental impact of oil leaks.
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.
Willsher explained that “the pipeline was essentially being pulled like an elastic bowstring.” “Its broadest point is approximately 105ft away from its original position.”
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.
Official said that the investigators would like to obtain tracking and navigational data from the Rotterdam Express so they can identify it’s exact movements. Additionally, they are looking for preliminary interviews to at least one crew member.
The official was unable to discuss the matter publicly, so he spoke with AP at anonymity.
Spokesperson for the Coast Guard, Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said that the agency was analyzing the vessel traffic service’s electric charting system to determine if any ships are anchored in the area or moving through it.
MarineTraffic data indicates that the Rotterdam Express arrived in Long Beach on Sept. 22 at around 6:00 AM and dropped anchor just 2,000 feet (610 m) 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. It is believed that the ship then started its engines to get back to anchorage about ten minutes later.
It moved once more around midnight. The ship also moved a third times shortly before 8:08 a.m. Sept. 23. All three moves were back to the assigned anchorage as per its online data. The Rotterdam Express remained on spot SF-3 through Sunday. It then moved into the port to load.
Amplify Energy is required to provide a “root cause failure analysis” within 90 days of the incident to federal officials. This should be accompanied by independent documentation from a third party that documents the process used to make the decision and factors which contributed to it.
The DOT letter states that the final report should include conclusions and lessons learned.
Bacon reported in Arlington, Virginia. Contributing to The Associated Press