With the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach facing an unprecedented blockage, investigators are trying to determine the role of congested shipping lanes in the massive oil spill that has plagued the Orange County coast since the start of the month.
Investigators are investigating possible issues with the way ships anchor or drift offshore in long lines caused by skyrocketing consumer demand and disrupted supply chains during the pandemic.
Authorities believe a ship anchored off Huntington Beach struck an underwater pipe, possibly months before oil began to spill into the ocean. It is not known how a ship came to anchor its anchor on a pipeline when the placement of ships is supposed to be carefully orchestrated to avoid such incidents.
But offshore traffic jams have forced ships to wait far beyond their usual zones, casting huge anchors near oil platforms and underwater oil pipeline infrastructure.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are focusing on a time at the start of the year when high winds may have moved large vessels on the pipeline. They are examining which ships were nearby on January 24 and 25, and are collecting data on every ship circulating near the pipeline since last October.
In the coming weeks, investigators plan to board several foreign vessels to see if they have been anchored near the pipeline over the past year.
Coast Guard investigators examined several ships that had been in the area in the days leading up to the leak and concluded that none of them were likely to be responsible for the damage to the pipeline, which was last inspected. in October 2020.
However, US Coast Guard captain Jason Neubauer said no vessel had been completely ruled out. Investigators focus primarily on shipping traffic at the Port of Long Beach but are also looking at Los Angeles.
A first collision with a ship may have displaced the pipeline without breaking it. Another collision, or perhaps a geological event, could have either “made the fracture worse or caused it all,” Neubauer said.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are among the busiest in the country.
On September 19, a record 73 container ships and 97 ships of all types were anchored waiting to enter ports – some in a “drift zone” used for overflow traffic.
Until 2020, it was common for a single container ship to be anchored offshore.
As of Tuesday morning, the traffic jam had dropped to 30 container ships bound for the Port of Los Angeles and 28 bound for the Port of Long Beach.
As buyers and retailers prepare for the holidays, pressure on ports is expected to intensify.
Shortages of everything from bikes to electronics, not to mention the hot toys of the season, are expected.
Representative Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) on Tuesday introduced legislation to ban idling or docking cargo ships 24 nautical miles or less off the Orange County coast.
She called the idling ships an “environmental and public health crisis”.
In addition to the Coast Guard and the NTSB, the California Attorney General and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office have opened investigations into the spill. The investigations could lead to criminal charges and civil penalties and will likely be used in several class actions against Amplify Energy, the owner of the pipeline, according to legal experts.
Neubauer said a large ship struggling with difficult conditions may not have known its anchor had cut a pipeline.
In a 2018 Great Lakes incident, a barge anchor crossed three submarine cables and two pipelines, resulting in an 800-gallon oil spill. The crew were not immediately aware of the accident.
In Orange County, a 13-inch tear in the pipeline spilled a low of about 24,696 gallons and a high of 131,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, resulting in a slick that has devastated the coast for over a week.
Oil began pouring into Huntington Beach on October 3. Tar balls washed up as far south as San Diego County, fouling beaches, killing wildlife and causing massive clean-up.
Investigators plan to remove the cracked section of the pipeline and take it to a lab so that NTSB metallurgy experts can determine when it was damaged and when it started to leak.
Times writer Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.