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A look at the ecological damage of the oil spill of California's coast


In Southern California, investigators are looking at whether a German cargo ship was involved in the oil spill that's now polluting beaches, waters and fragile wetlands. Today, officials gave a new lower estimate of how much crude oil may have been spilled from a pipeline that was damaged on the ocean floor last weekend.

To talk about all this, we're joined by NPR environment correspondent Nathan Rott, who's in Huntington Beach. Hi, Nate.


SHAPIRO: OK, so this pipeline was dragged across the ocean floor. What's the latest that officials are saying on what might have dragged it and how much damage it's caused?

ROTT: Well, yeah, there's a lot of questions. I think - I mean, the biggest news today is certainly what you mentioned, that they've revised the number of just how much oil leaked from this pipeline. Earlier, officials had said that as much as 144,000 gallons of crude oil may have spilled. Today, they're saying it's a minimum of 25,000 with a maximum of about 130. So there's a lot of wiggle room there and a big difference in just how much oil they're dealing with now and trying to clean up.

Besides that, you know, there are still a lot of questions about how this leak happened. Officials say it came from an underwater pipeline that connects an offshore oil rig to an onshore processing facility. You know, it's one of many that snakes under the ocean from the oil rigs here. There have been suspicions that a ship anchor snagged the pipeline late last week, causing the damage.

This is a super busy section of water just south of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. I mean, from where I'm standing, I count probably 10 - at least 10 big container ships out on the horizon. And typically, those ships are given directions on where they can drop anchor and wait. But news outlets have found that the cargo ship in question drifted away from its designated spot late last week, you know, making it possible that its anchor got tangled in the pipeline. The pipeline operator described the pipeline looking like a bowstring, it was bent so much. And it caused a 13-inch gash in the pipe.

SHAPIRO: So you said you can see ships on the horizon. Can you see oil in the water? What does it look like?

ROTT: I saw a lot of water on the oil earlier at a wetland I visited. But from where I'm standing - I'm right next to the pier on Huntington Beach. There's really not much I can see from here. And it's really - I think the most stark thing is how quiet it is. You know, there's a good swell coming in, and there are no surfers in the water. The only folks I really see on the beach and at the water's edge are just men and women in hazmat suits filling up garbage bags with little coin-sized dollops of oil that have washed up on the beach.

They say they've recovered about 5,000 gallons at this point, but the vast majority of the oil is still out at sea. And that's causing a lot of concern in this sort of nervous wait-and-see situation for communities down the coast because there are concerns that the oil could start hitting shores in coastal ecosystems in the days and weeks to come.

And, you know, this stuff is really gnarly, sticky crude oil. I visited the wetland I mentioned earlier today. And you could still see oil slicks in the water. You could see tar stains on the rocks. Birds were coming and going and landing in it. The director of the conservancy that runs the wetlands says there was so much oil there over the weekend that it made his eyes water just standing next to it. And it could be years before they get it totally cleaned up.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So what have people who live in the area told you? How are they doing?

ROTT: Well, there's a lot of frustration. You know, this isn't the first leak from oil rigs that dot the coast here. And this isn't the - like, it isn't the busiest time of year, typically, from a tourism standpoint. But I did talk to the manager of a surf shop here. Her name is Shawn Sakal - Shawna Sakal, excuse me. And she says they've seen their business cut in half since the oil leak started.

SHAWNA SAKAL: It's kind of like when COVID hit. You know, we didn't know what was going to happen. And we made it through. We pulled through, but barely (laughter). So we'll see.

ROTT: So a handful of business owners here have filed a class-action lawsuit against the oil company that owns the pipeline. Some homeowners have done the same, saying they did not respond fast enough. But yeah, this is going to be a long-term thing with long-lasting effects.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Nathan Rott in Huntington Beach, Calif. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.