Oil spill cleanup: Southern California beach reopens

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF. – Surfers and swimmers returned to the waves on Monday at a popular Southern California beach that was closed for more than a week after an underwater pipeline leaked crude oil into the ocean .

The reopening of Huntington Beach – dubbed “Surf City USA” – came much sooner than expected after a putrid smell blanketed the coast and drops of crude began to wash up on the shore.

City and state park officials have decided to reopen the Huntington Beach shoreline after water quality tests found no detectable levels of petroleum-associated toxins in the ocean. That was good enough for Andrew Boyack, a 54-year-old commercial photographer, who usually surfs the waves in his hometown three or four times a week but has stayed out since the spill.

“There are a lot of guys out there, so I think it’s probably okay, and I guess they tested it,” Boyack said, rinsing off in an outdoor shower on the beach.

“It’s exercise. It’s like, you know, if someone was jogging or something. We surf every morning.”

The surf-loving town of 200,000 and neighboring coastal communities were hit hard by the spill. The ocean has been closed, a popular air show canceled, fisheries closed and local shops destroyed. The environmental impact on sensitive wetland habitats has been less severe than initially feared, but advocates say they are concerned about the long-term effects of the spill.

The shore at nearby Newport Beach was also reopened on Monday after water quality tests found no unhealthy levels of petroleum-related toxins, said John Pope, a city spokesperson.

Coastguard officials have said that a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy, which carries crude from offshore platforms to the coast, has leaked at least about 25,000 gallons (95,000 liters) and not over 132,000 gallons (500,000 liters) of crude oil in the ocean.

The spill was confirmed on October 2, a day after residents reported smelling petroleum in the area. Officials said the case remains under investigation and they believe the pipeline was likely damaged by a ship’s anchor several months to a year before it ruptured.

On an overcast Monday, a handful of people played volleyball, and residents walked, jogged and biked a path alongside the beach. Surfers in wetsuits raced to shore with their boards, eager to get back on the waves, some after being chased away on weekends by jet-ski rescuers.

Still, there were far fewer people in the ocean than usual, said Sean Rinehart, a 49-year-old surf instructor and chief of Huntington Beach. Rinehart headed for the surf, but said he decided not to go in after the smell of dead fish near the pier made him think. The last time he surfed was on October 2, when he said he ended up in an oil spill. His skin, even now, is still itchy, he said.

“I want to get in, but no way,” he said.

In Huntington Beach, stores selling everything from bikinis and star and stripe boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear have taken an economic hit since the spill. Store owners are hopeful that business will rebound quickly, but fear it may take longer.

The sand seemed clear near the pier and there was no smell of oil. Workers in hazmat suits removing the oily stains continued to comb through the sand.

Matt Harty, a 61-year-old retired construction supervisor from the nearby community of Seal Beach, said he was happy to return to the waves at Huntington Beach with other early morning surfers. He said he had seen oil spills before and it didn’t look that bad, and in fact the beach looks great.

“It’s the cleanest beach I’ve seen in years, isn’t it, because there’s been no one here for a week,” Harty said. “I think they cleaned it up really well.”

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