The US Coast Guard received the first report of an oil spill off the Southern California coast more than 12 hours before a company reported a pipeline leak and a clean-up effort started, according reports reviewed by the Associated Press.
Two early calls about the spill went to the National Response Centre, which is staffed by the coast guard and notifies other agencies for quick response.
The first was from the crew of an anchored ship who noticed a sheen on the water. The second, six hours later, came from a federal agency that said an oil slick was suspected to have shown up on satellite imagery, according to reports by the California Office of Emergency Services.
The spill sent nearly 572,807 litres of heavy crude into the ocean off Huntington Beach and it then washed on to miles of beaches and a protected marshland.
The beaches could be closed for weeks or longer, a major hit to the local economy. Coastal fisheries in the area are closed to commercial and recreational fishing.
California Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange County, directing state agencies “to undertake immediate and aggressive action to clean up and mitigate the effects" of the spill.
Experts said it was too early to determine the full impact on the environment but that so far the number of animals found harmed is minimal.
Officials were looking at whether a ship’s anchor may have struck an oil pipeline on the ocean floor, causing a leak.
The head of the company that operates the pipeline said its divers were inspecting the area of the suspected leak that was discovered on Saturday, and he expected that by Tuesday there would be a clearer idea of what caused the damage.
An anchor from a cargo ship striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy chief executive Martyn Willsher told a news conference.
He said divers examined more than 2,438 metres of the pipeline and were focusing on “one area of significant interest”.
The roughly 3,000 barrels of crude that have poured into the ocean near Huntington Beach are not just an environmental and economic blow. The incident has triggered visceral anger and revived questions about why California still has an offshore oil industry at all, five decades after it stopped issuing new drilling permits.
Both of California’s US senators – Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla – said the episode underscores the need to block offshore drilling, including through a legislative ban on new leasing off California, Oregon and Washington.
The US House of Representatives has already tucked the measure into its version of a multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill designed to advance US President Joe Biden's policy priorities.
“This is yet another preventable environmental catastrophe,” but “we have the power to prevent future spills,” Mr Padilla said.