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Fear of oil reignites concerns over damaged pipeline

An oil burst spotted off Huntington Beach over the weekend was a reminder of how long it will take Southern California to unravel the legal, regulatory and environmental fallout from an October pipeline spill that spilled about 25,000 gallons of crude in the ocean.

A 70-foot-by-30-foot shard was spotted on Saturday morning and disappeared after dark, authorities said. The U.S. Coast Guard said it was likely a residual leak from the ruptured 17.3-mile pipeline, which has been closed since October 2.

Divers preparing for a routine inspection of the damaged pipeline spotted the shard around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said. Underwater, they saw oil droplets near the damaged section, which since the spill have been encased in a material called Syntho-Glass. The divers removed the packaging and installed a new one.

If Amplify Energy, the Texas-based company that operated the pipeline, was responsible for the oil release this weekend, there could be repercussions, said Ted Borrego, an oil and gas lawyer with 50 years of experience. industry background and assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

“If this is a recurring problem caused by a business, fines are in order,” Borrego said in an email, adding that authorities may take further action depending on the circumstances.

Meanwhile, the wave of lawsuits sparked by the October spill continues to sweep through the federal court system. Amplify is now facing 14 lawsuits from businesses, residents, landowners and others affected by the spill. The plaintiffs include coastal landowners in Laguna Beach, a surf school in Huntington Beach, a bait and fishing tackle shop in Seal Beach, and several groups of fishing and seafood businesses.

Several of the 22 law firms involved in the litigation have already urged U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to consolidate their lawsuits into a class action suit. He signaled in a November 9 court file that he would eventually consolidate the cases, but he’s still considering when to do it.

Carter ordered a mid-December hearing at the Santa Ana Federal Courthouse, where lawyers could lobby to lead the litigation. He said he would go for the selection of one or more companies with “long-standing” ties to Orange County and Los Angeles, experience in class actions, and knowledge of bankruptcy and corporate law. ‘environment.

Amy Conway, spokesperson for Amplify, did not respond to questions emailed Monday, and instead provided a link to a two-day-old statement by Unified Command that was established in response to the spill.

In court records last month, an Amplify attorney identified a long list of insurers, including a Houston-based insurer and 10 Lloyd’s syndicates, who could also incur legal fees or potential settlement costs.

Federal investigators believe the major October spill was triggered by the anchor of a ship hitting the pipeline during a storm in January, complicating the question of civil liability for the incident.

Last week, federal authorities identified and embarked a second freighter, the container ship Beijing, in the port of Long Beach. The Coast Guard said in a statement the ship was involved in the heavy-weather Jan.25 anchor drag incident at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and named the ship’s owners, Capetanissa. from Liberia and the operator V-Ships. Greece Ltd., as parties to the investigation.

The October spill had a significant negative impact on the natural environment, despite the fact that the estimated amount of oil released was about one-fifth of what was originally reported. The UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network said earlier this month it had recovered 82 dead birds, six dead mammals and dozens of living mammals from the spill. Dead animals included a bottlenose dolphin, three California sea lions, and a wide array of birds: cormorants, coots, pigeons, grebes and more.

The USC Sea Grant program reported that 5,544 gallons of oil, 13.6 barrels of tarballs and 546,782 pounds of “oil sand and debris” had been collected from the southern California coast as of November 8. Fisheries in the area remain closed, but beaches have reopened, and the USC program reported that an analysis found that “the air, water and sediment in San Diego and Orange County pose no problem. public health concern for short-term exposures due to the use of water and beaches in the counties ”.

Amplify last week withdrew its annual report, citing the spill as a decision factor. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it “paid approximately $ 17.3 million in costs related to remediation efforts regarding the incident,” most of which have been or are expected to be reimbursed by insurance companies.

Stephen Schork, a longtime analyst and adviser on energy markets, said he was concerned that the rapid divestment of fossil fuel infrastructure like Southern California’s aging rigs could increase the likelihood of spills. of oil by smaller operators like Amplify, which lack the resources available to international energy conglomerates. to prevent such incidents and compensate affected communities once they occur.

“I am afraid that you may not expect more of these cases in the years to come with a higher frequency with the way we proceed with our investments,” he said.

Eric Smith, a professor of commerce at Tulane University in New Orleans and associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said he believes the government has little recourse with Amplify.

“I don’t think the authorities can do much more to amplify,” he said. “Considering the financial surplus, they’re a zombie at this point.”

But Schork said it was still imperative that the company do everything possible to prevent future incidents and that regulators oversee those efforts.

“It is absolutely in the best interest of every producer to be as meticulous as possible, and it is the responsibility of regulators to make sure that happens,” he said. “They are making sure this problem is resolved and a cure is implemented.”

Times editors Matthew Ormseth and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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