Some of the crude oil that spilled from a pipeline into the waters off Southern California has been breaking up naturally in ocean currents, a U.S. Coast Guard official said Wednesday, as authorities sought to determine the scope of the damage.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said some of the oil has been pushed to the south by currents. Storms earlier in the week may also have helped disperse the oil, which he said could make it more challenging to skim as it spreads out.

“Most of this oil is separating and starting to float further south,” he said while accompanying reporters aboard a boat to the scene of the spill. “The biggest problem is the uncertainty, the amount that leaked into the water. We are at this point unsure of the total amount that leaked out.”

The pipeline operator, Amplify Energy Corp., has publicly pegged the maximum amount of the spill at 126,000 gallons (572,807 litres) of heavy crude. But the company told investigators with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that initial measurements put the total only around 29,400 gallons (111,291 litres).

Water, shoreline off limits in some areas

The water and shoreline are still off limits in Huntington Beach and several other areas, but people are allowed on the sand.

A worker in a protective suit cleans the contaminated beach Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif., after an oil spill. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

Beachgoers played volleyball on the Huntington Beach sand Wednesday morning as walkers and bikers passed near the city’s famed pier. A few globs of oil were visible along the shoreline but no smell remained.

Investigators have said the spill may have been caused by a ship’s anchor that hooked, dragged and tore open an underwater pipeline. Federal officials also found that the pipeline owner did not quickly shut down operations after a safety system alerted to a possible spill.

“The Coast Guard is looking into a multitude of factors that may have caused the pipe to rupture, including corrosion, pipe failure, or an anchor strike,” said Strohmaier. “We are analyzing the electric charting systems from our vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the affected area on Friday.”

Questions about timeline of events

Questions remained about the timeline of the weekend spill, which fouled beaches and a protected marshland, potentially closing them for weeks, along with commercial and recreational fishing in a major hit to the local economy.

A seagull rests as workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach in Newport Beach, Calif. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

Some reports of a possible spill, a petroleum smell and an oily sheen on the waters off Huntington Beach came in Friday night but weren’t corroborated and the pipeline’s operator didn’t report a spill until the next morning, authorities said.

An alarm went off in a company control room at 2:30 a.m. Saturday that pressure had dropped in the pipeline, indicating a possible leak but Amplify waited until 6:01 a.m. to shut down the pipeline, according to preliminary findings of an investigation into the spill.

The Houston-based company took another three hours to notify the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center for oil spills, investigators said, further slowing the response to an accident for which Amplify workers spent years preparing.

Pipeline operator investigating response

Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher refused to directly answer questions about the alarm when pressed on the issue by reporters Wednesday. He repeated his assertion that the company didn’t learn of the spill until a boat saw a sheen on the water at 8:09 a.m.

Dead marine life is seen Wednesday on the edge of a beach in Newport Beach, Calif., as workers in protective suits walk by. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

“We are conducting a full investigation into that to see if there’s anything that should have been noticed,” Willsher said, adding, “I’m not sure if there was a significant loss in pressure.”

He said the pipeline was already shut down by 6 a.m. Saturday, then restarted for five minutes for a “meter reading” before it was shut down again. Willsher did not say when it had been initially shut down or why.

The company’s spill-response plan calls for the immediate notification of a spill.

Criminal charges have been brought in the past when a company took too long to notify federal and state officials of a spill.

Scource From CBC News

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