This weekend, an oil slick was spotted off the coast of southern California, about three miles from Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles. It was thirteen square miles when first detected by the US Coast Guard. Beaches this weekend were closed in anticipation of the oil making landfall. The last day of the Pacific Airshow was canceled to keep civilians off the beach while the US Coast Guard leads the hazard mitigation response and investigation.
The source of the spill is still under investigation but has been reported as coming from an oil rig platform that operates 8.6 miles from the coast. The leak has reportedly been patched, but “has not been completely stopped” according to the Sunday morning press release from Huntington Beach. The spill currently contains around 126,000 gallons of crude oil and has begun to wash up on the beach with dead birds and fish. Residents are complaining of strong smells from the oil washing ashore, but teams are on-site to try to mitigate potential damage.
While this is a relatively small spill compared to some previous oil spills in American waters, the damage from oil spills is largely irreversible, and damaged habitats can never be completely restored. Oil spills cause damage through direct fouling of plants and animals, when the oil coats or covers bird feathers or plant leaves, and through oil toxicity. Some of the toxic compounds in crude oil can cause severe health problems for plants, animals, and even humans.
The US Coast Guard is largely responsible for cleaning up oil spills and NOAA provides scientific support to them to best protect people and the environment. Equipment like booms, skimming boats, chemical dispersants, and controlled burning are some of the ways we try to control and clean up oil spills. NOAA is also the agency that is responsible for pursuing legal action to hold companies responsible for spills accountable through legal settlements that help pay for cleanup work. Once the Coast Guard investigation concludes, NOAA will likely seek legal action against the responsible company.