Refu­gio spill sus­pected in lo­cal tar ball bar­rage

Globs may be more than co­in­ci­dence, ex­perts say

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Mozingo, Ruben Vives and Hai­ley Bran­son-Potts

They hit Sum­mer­land more than two weeks ago, globs of oil stink­ing up the beach bad enough to in­duce headaches. Then they struck Ox­nard, Malibu and the South Bay. This week, like a bloom of black jel­ly­fish, they landed in Long Beach.

Although beach tar has long been a nui­sance of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia life, vis­cous balls of crude oil wash­ing up all over has not.

At first, many of­fi­cials and sci­en­tists fig­ured it might be a co­in­ci­dence that this oc­curred af­ter the May 19 oil spill in Santa Bar­bara County. There are nat­u­ral oil seeps up and down the coast.

But now with dozens of af­fected beaches, the prime sus­pect is the 21,000 gal­lons that spilled into the ocean from the rup­tured pipe­line at Refu­gio State Beach.

“We get tar balls, but not droves of them, at one time, seem­ingly from one event,” said David Valen­tine, a pro­fes­sor of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and geo­chem­istry at UC Santa Bar­bara, who stud­ies oil and gas dis­per­sion in the ocean. “I’m sus­pi­cious of a co­in­ci­dence.”

The Coast Guard took sam­ples of the Long Beach oil, as it did from

other beaches, to see if lab­o­ra­tory testing could iden­tify whether it came from the spill or an­other source. But that testing could take weeks.

Sci­en­tists at the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion were also try­ing to de­ter­mine whether pre­vail­ing wind and ocean cur­rents could de­liver oil from Refu­gio to the beaches be­ing hit.

In Long Beach, where oil is drilled on ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands off­shore, of­fi­cials said they found no leaks or in­di­ca­tion that it came from their op­er­a­tions.

By Thurs­day af­ter­noon, much of the mess on the four-mile stretch of sand — from soft­ball-sized gobs to small bits of harder tar — was clean.

Crews re­moved roughly 55 gal­lons of “petroleum­based prod­uct” ac­cord­ing to Long Beach Fire Chief Mike Du Ree.

Un­like dry and com­pressed tar that oc­ca­sion­ally washes up on shore, this goo was “very un­usual,” Du-Ree said.

“This had a dif­fer­ent smell and sheen to it,” Du-Ree said. “It smelled fresh and was more of a liq­uid tar.”

The wa­ter was closed to swim­ming and kite­board­ing — a popular form of recre­ation on the beach, due to strong winds from the south­west, which could have car­ried the tar past the break­wa­ters that shel­ter San Pe­dro Bay.

When crude is spilled or seeps from a fis­sure on the ocean f loor, it f loats to the sur­face.

Winds and waves break slicks into smaller pieces, called tar balls, which ocean cur­rents can carry hun­dreds of miles.

The longer the oil is “weath­ered” the smaller and harder the pieces be­come.

Valen­tine, who has stud­ied the fate of the oil from the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill for the last five years, said the pre­vail­ing ocean cur­rent could bring the oil from the Refu­gio spill to Los An­ge­les County beaches.

He said a north­ward cur­rent meet­ing a south­ward cur­rent at Point Con­cep­tion cre­ates a counterclockwise cir­cu­lar f low along Santa Bar­bara.

Valen­tine said he spot­ted tar balls from the spill be­tween eight miles and 11 miles off­shore to the south, two days af­ter the spill.

“There is a di­rect line of sight from there to Man­hat­tan Beach,” he said.

Dana Roe­ber-Mur­ray, se­nior coastal pol­icy manager for Heal the Bay, said her group has col­lected seven dif­fer­ent sam­ples from seven dif­fer­ent beaches, and that the more re­cent sam­ples ap­pear to be more weath­ered, sug­gest­ing that it came from the spill.

“Most peo­ple are con­cerned and sus­pi­cious that it’s con­nected with the oil spill,” Roe­ber-Mur­ray said.

She said cleanup crews should take pre­cau­tions to wear masks and not touch the oil with their bare hands.

Un­like a nat­u­ral oil seep, she said, oil from a pipe­line has chem­i­cal ad­di­tives that are harm­ful to hu­man health.

The spill has so far killed 115 birds, 46 sea li­ons and 12 dol­phins, she said.

Oth­ers awaited di­rect ev­i­dence that the oil on L.A. County beaches came from the spill.

“Peo­ple are more aware of tar balls right now, so they’re be­ing re­ported more fre­quently be­cause they’re in the news,” said Petty Of­fi­cer Michael An­der­son, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Los An­ge­les.

When the Coast Guard gets a re­port, it re­sponds and takes a sam­ple.

He said the in­creased vig­i­lance from the public is a good thing.

It is nat­u­ral for a beach to have small amounts of tar, an­other Coast Guard of­fi­cial said.

Linda Mer­rill, 65, of Long Beach came to the beach with a friend to look at tar that washed up.

She be­lieved it came from the ocean floor.

“We’ve had small earth­quakes stir­ring up the bot­tom of the ocean f loor,” she said.

She said, whether the tar balls are nat­u­ral or not, it was lucky they hit a part of the beach not fre­quented by swim­mers, and not the popular Alami­tos Bay just across the penin­sula.

Laima Boyd, 60, took her usual morn­ing walk on the beach, happy to see it wasn’t as bad as she had heard on the news, but wor­ried this was just the be­gin­ning.

“I don’t know whether more is com­ing or if this was as bad as it’s go­ing to get.”

Pho­tog raphs by Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

WORK­ERS EX­AM­INE the coast­line in Long Beach for tar balls. The tar balls have also washed ashore in Ox­nard, Malibu and the South Bay. Tests to de­ter­mine the source could take weeks.

TAR BALLS be­come smaller and harder the longer they are weath­ered in the ocean.

Allen J. Sch­aben. Los An­ge­les Times

CREWS RE­MOVED roughly 55 gal­lons of “petroleum-based prod­uct” from the Long Beach sand, said an of­fi­cial, who added that the sub­stance was un­like the dry, com­pressed tar that oc­ca­sion­ally turns up on shore.

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