California’s ‘Surf City USA’ beach reopens after oil spill

A Southern California beach that was closed more than a week ago because of a leak of crude oil from an undersea pipeline reopened on Monday, far sooner than many expected.

Huntington Beach’s city and state beaches reopened after officials said water quality tests revealed no detectable levels of oil associated toxins in the ocean water. Early Monday morning, surfers bobbed in the waves and people walked along the shoreline, some with dogs jumping and playing in the water.

Andrew Boyack, a 54-year-old commercial photographer, was eager to get back to surfing the waves he usually rides three or four times a week.

“There’s lots of guys out so I figure it’s probably all right, and I guess they tested it,” he said, while rinsing off at an outdoor beach shower.

“It’s exercise. It’s like, you know, if somebody was a jogger or something,” he said. “We surf every morning.”

Workers with Patriot Environmental Services pick through the sand looking for pieces of oil south of the pier in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Friday. (Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register/The Associated Press)

Workers with Patriot Environmental Services pick up oil-contaminated sand and plants south of the pier in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Friday. (Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register/The Associated Press)

Huntington Beach and nearby coastal communities reeled from last week’s spill that officials said sent at least about 95,000 litres and no more than 500,000 litres of oil into the ocean. 

It was caused by a leak about eight kilometres off the coast in a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy that shuttles crude from offshore oil platforms to the coast.

The spill was confirmed on Oct. 2, a day after residents reported a petroleum smell in the area. The cause is under investigation and officials said they believe the pipeline was likely damaged by a ship’s anchor several months to a year before it ruptured. It remains unknown when the slender, 33-centimetre crack in the pipeline began leaking oil.

By Sunday, there was no smell of oil and the sand looked largely clear by the Huntington Beach pier, where workers combed the sand for tar. 

But local officials worry about the environmental impact of the spill on wetlands, wildlife and the economy. With the ocean off limits in the community dubbed Surf City USA, relatively few people were at the beach and shops that cater to them have been hurting.

People play beach volleyball as workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach in Corona Del Mar after an oil spill in Newport Beach, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 7. The Coast Guard is investigating whether a ship anchor snagged and bent the pipeline off Huntington Beach. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

Officials in the city of 200,000 people have said the water testing will continue for at least two more weeks.

Before Monday, residents were allowed to walk on the sand in Huntington Beach but were prohibited from the shoreline and the water. Popular surfing and swimming spots in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach were also closed.

In Huntington Beach, shops selling everything from bikinis and stars-and-stripes boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear took an economic hit during the closure. Marian Johnson, who owns “Let’s Go Fishing” on the pier, said sales were cut in half by the closure.

Mike Ali, who owns the nearby shop Zack’s, said he was forced to close three of his four locations and reduce workers’ hours. People still rented bikes and bought food at his one store that remained open during the beach shutdown, but he said business dropped 90 per cent without surf lessons, event catering and beach bonfires.

“It could be a year to two years to get the tourism to come back,” Ali said, adding that a 1990 oil spill wound up diverting would-be visitors to beaches south and north of the city.

Rich Toro, 70, still took his regular 40-kilometre bike ride down to Huntington Beach on Sunday. 

But he said he wouldn’t race to get back into the water because of the spill and worries about the impact on wildlife. Since the spill, officials have reported 38 dead birds and nine dead fish, while 27 oiled birds have been recovered and are being treated.

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