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California attorney general announces investigation into SoCal oil spill

Environmental activists applauded the investigation by the state's Department of Justice amid growing calls for an end to offshore drilling.

(CN) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Monday that the state's justice department will investigate the recent oil spill off the coast of Orange County.

The announcement from Bonta comes on the heels of an escalating political fight over the future of fossil fuels as response teams work to clean up shorelines, rescue wildlife and mitigate the impacts of the spill on the ecologically and economically valuable coastal region.

“The oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach is an environmental disaster with far-reaching consequences for our fish and wildlife, for our communities, and for our economy,” Bonta said in a statement. “My office is committed to devoting the people and the resources necessary to ensure this environmental disaster is fully investigated, and we will follow the facts wherever they lead us.”

The investigation will involve coordination between local, state and federal authorities to pinpoint the cause of the spill and determine what, if anything, could have prevented it.

“We applaud Attorney General Bonta's leadership and appreciate him taking the lead in investigating the Huntington Beach oil spill, which is only the latest visible price we pay for our continued dependence on fossil fuels,” Mike Young, political and organizing director at California Environmental Voters, told Courthouse News. “This wasn't the first oil-caused disaster along California's coast, and it won't be the last unless that changes.” 

The spill occurred about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, flowing from a ruptured pipeline owned by Amplify Energy. The Southern California Spill Response team estimated that at least 24,696 gallons of oil flowed into the ocean — much less than the 144,000 gallons initially suspected.

Still, questions have been raised about Amplify Energy’s response to the spill, particularly after officials concluded that the pipeline likely was struck and dragged by a ship’s anchor.

“We now know that an anchor indeed moved the pipeline 105 feet months ago — maybe even a year ago,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley tweeted Saturday. “Why didn’t the oil company know their pipe was damaged? Why didn’t they fix it or at least turn off the valve?”

According to the announcement from Bonta’s office, the California Department of Justice investigation came after Bonta and U.S. Senator Alex Padilla traveled to Orange County on Monday for a briefing by Southern California Spill Response, which is comprised of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and Amplify Energy. The announcement referred to Amplify Energy as the company responsible for the spill.

Martyn Willsher, the president of Amplify Energy, has maintained that the company reported the spill as soon as it became aware of it on the morning of Oct. 2. Willsher and Amplify Energy declined an interview request through Southern California Spill Response, which is also known as Unified Command.

“[Willsher] is 100% focused on actively supporting the Unified Command’s coordinated response efforts, as well as ensuring that the federal investigators working to identify the cause of the event are being provided with all the information and materials they need to reach a conclusion as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson for Southern California Spill Response said in a statement.

Other agencies have already initiated inquiries or floated the possibility of investigating the ruptured pipeline.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer suggested last Monday that if the source of the leak was determined to be within three miles of the shore, it would be within his office’s jurisdiction. He called on Amplify Energy not to use its own dive team to investigate the status of the pipeline and instead allow outside investigators to conduct the inquiry.

Marine accident investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are leading an independent probe of the incident as well, according to Foley.

A DJ who says he often has gigs on the beachfront and the owner of a Huntington Beach surf school are lead plaintiffs in separate class action lawsuits against Amplify Energy, claiming negligence and nuisance by the company.

For some activists and policymakers, the spill has become a rallying cry to end offshore drilling and phase out fossil fuel use.

“The hard truth is that the only way to guarantee these oil spills will not occur is to stop drilling,” Young said. “It's a stark signal that we must transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy as soon as possible.”

At a press conference announcing the investigation, Padilla decried fossil fuel projects in the the Golden State’s coastal waters.

“We know that Californians oppose offshore oil drilling. It’s been banned in state waters,” Padilla said. “It’s past time that we ban it in federal waters. Because even when oil pipelines aren’t leaking, oil is continuing to fuel the global warming crisis, poisoning local communities and causing billions of dollars of harm each and every year.”

Padilla called on Congress to include the West Coast Ocean Protection Act in the budget reconciliation bill being negotiated on Capitol Hill. The act would ban new oil and gas drilling off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. The Build Back Better Act — the centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda — includes a ban on new offshore drilling. Other members of Congress have also called for those provisions to remain intact as they haggle over the sweeping package’s price tag and particulars.

Clean-up from the spill continued into Monday, with the city of Newport Beach announcing the full reopening of beaches after water quality testing. According to a Sunday update from Southern California Spill Response, there are 1,600 people working on the response. Vessels have recovered 5,544 total gallons of crude oil and roughly 250,000 pounds of oily debris have been pulled from the shorelines.

As of Monday, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network had recovered 45 dead birds and nine dead fish.

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