Southern California beach set to reopen after oil spill

Local officials are concerned about the environmental impact of the spill on wetlands, wildlife and the economy

A Southern California beach that had been closed since an undersea pipeline leaked into ocean waters last week is expected to reopen on Monday, officials announced late Sunday.

Beaches in the city and state of Huntington Beach, California, will reopen after water quality tests found no detectable levels of petroleum-associated toxins in the seawater, the state said. City of Huntington and California State Parks in a press release.

They still urge visitors to avoid areas that smell of oil and not to touch soiled materials that have washed up on shore.

This news should please swimmers like Richard Beach, 69, who returned to the waves at Huntington Beach on Sunday with his bodyboard — until lifeguards on jet skis chased him away.

He walked across the beach, passing workers in hazmat suits tasked with cleaning the sand of black, sticky stains that washed ashore after the spill. He had previously stayed away from the ocean after the oil spill sent a foul smell to the shore.

“The water is perfect. Clear all the way to the bottom,” Beach said.

Huntington Beach and nearby coastal communities have been rocked by last week’s spill which officials say sent at least about 25,000 gallons (95,000 liters) and no more than 132,000 gallons (500,000 liters) oil in the ocean.

It was caused by a leak about 8 kilometers offshore in a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy, which transports crude from offshore oil rigs to the coast.

The spill was confirmed Oct. 2, a day after residents reported the smell of petroleum in the area.

The cause of the spill is still under investigation and officials said they believe the pipeline was likely damaged by a ship’s anchor months to a year before it ruptured. It is still unclear when the thin 13-inch (33 centimeter) crack in the pipeline began to leak.

On Sunday, there was no smell of petroleum and the sand seemed mostly clear near the Huntington Beach pier, where workers combed the sand for tar. But local officials are concerned about the environmental impact of the spill on wetlands, wildlife and the economy. With the ocean forbidden in the community dubbed Surf City USA, relatively few people were at the beach. The stores that host them have been affected.

Officials in the town of 200,000 have been testing the water to make sure it is safe before people are allowed inside. The popular surfing and swimming spots of Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are also closed, and further south the water is open but signs warning of the spill are posted.

In Huntington Beach, stores selling everything from star-and-stripe bikinis and boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear have taken a hit. Marian Johnson, owner of “Let’s Go Fishing” on the pier, said sales had halved since the spill.

Mike Ali, owner of nearby store Zack’s, said he understood the reason for the water closure, but had to close three of his four locations and cut hours for his employees. People come to rent bikes and food at his one store that remains open, but without surf lessons, event catering and beach bonfires have dropped 90%, he said.

“It could take a year to two years for tourism to come back,” Ali said, adding that an oil spill in 1990 ended up diverting potential visitors to the beaches south and north of the city.

Rich Toro, 70, still rode his usual 25-mile (40 kilometer) bike ride to Huntington Beach on Sunday. But he said he would not race to get back into the water in light of the spill and concerns about the impact on wildlife.

Since the incident, authorities 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 morning surfers were dragged out of the water by lifeguards.

And while fishing is prohibited along the shoreline 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 shoal of fish was swimming under the nearby pier.

“If it was that dangerous, the fish would be dead,” Archouletta said.

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