By Breezh Nunez and Zachary Chen, Oct. 19, 2021

Southern California saw one of its worst oil spills in recent history on Oct. 2 when an oil pipeline burst five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, spilling an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean. The pipeline, owned by Houston-based company Amplify Energy, likely burst due to a 13-inch crack caused by a ship’s anchor dragging across the seafloor.

While Huntington Beach parks are beginning to reopen shorelines after testing results revealed non-detectable amounts of oil toxins in the water, members of Cal Poly Pomona’s biological sciences community expressed concern about the lasting effects of the spill.

“There has been a lot of work done recently to restore the natural reefs in the area,” said James Sturges, a master’s biological sciences student. “This is a blow to that progress that we’ve made. California has done a lot to improve their marine resource management.”

Justin Oo | The Poly Post

Although the spill was less than the 127,000 gallons initially projected, the aftermath was devastating for the surrounding marine environments. While crude oil is a fossil fuel found naturally within the Earth’s crust, it is toxic to birds, fish and other marine animals. For birds and haired mammals, the oil can make it difficult for them to stay warm and can affect things like flight and movement.

One of the notable marine areas affected was the Talbert Marshes, a 25-acre wetland off the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach. The marsh is a critical link along the rest stops for birds making long migrations along the Pacific Flyway.

“The oiling of very valuable ecosystems like the marshes is really disheartening damage because these ecosystems are diverse and perform important services to our society,” said Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “They clean our water; they host our biodiversity. It is definitely a disaster in that regard because it takes years, many times, for these populations to recover, for the population’s affected organisms to recover.”

The oil spill has had detrimental, immediate effects on surrounding wildlife, killing fish and about 3,400 birds. Although the long-term effects of the oil spill are still unknown, Jeremy Claisse, an associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department, predicts it will have little to no impact on deep sea life, as he compares this oil spill to the one that occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara in 2015.

“The oil is light so most of it floats, so the impacts are mostly going to be on the surface. Birds landing in it and getting covered in oil, washing up on the beaches, washing up on the intertidal areas and there’ll be less noticeable effects down deep in the water,” said Claisse. “The one up off of Santa Barbara didn’t have any measurable impacts in terms of impacting the kelp forest and fish. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t toxins in the water that could make the fish have long-term health impacts, like developing cancers or reproductive issues, but in terms of visible differences it’s highly unlikely with the scale of the amount of oil that was released.”

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is an approximately 1,300-acre coastal estuary that is a marine protected area. The estuary is currently being closely monitored for oil exposure by the Huntington Beach Fire Department.

“If oil got into this one estuary right behind Huntington Beach, it’s an enclosed area that’s relatively shallow,” said Claisse. “Potentially, the oil and the associated chemicals in it are getting into the sediment. That could affect the invertebrates living in the sand and what’s going to eat them directly get into the fish living in that shallow area, so for those animals, living in that enclosed estuary space can have a long-term impact.”

Fossil fuels currently account for most of the energy supply and consumption in the United States. In 2019, 80% of domestic energy production and consumption have been derived from fossil fuels.

While Claisse does not believe new offshore oil platforms will continue to be built, the risk of spills remains due to their structure.

“The big question is: Once they stop drilling, do they leave the physical steel structure in place, or do they remove the whole thing?” said Claisse. “However, in that scenario, all the oil-related stuff is all the same whether you leave the structure or move it. The wells are all capped the same way; the chances of future oil spills are all the same.”

As of Oct. 11, Huntington Beach city and state Beaches have reopened to the public. However, recreational fishing between Sunset Beach and Dana Point from the shoreline to six miles out is prohibited. Water testing will continue twice a week for at least two weeks to monitor for potential toxins. The Huntington Beach website continues to provide the most up-to-date information regarding the oil spill.

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