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Feds calls for sweeping changes in California shipping after huge oil spill

Grace Toohey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

A federal agency wants changes in how container ships are anchored off Southern California as well as new safety measures for vessels near offshore pipelines to help prevent or minimize ruptures like the one that spilled 25,000 gallons of crude oil off Huntington Beach.

The 2021 spill caused damage to beaches and wetlands and killed scores of fish and birds.

After a sweeping, two-year review, the National Transportation Safety Board released findings Tuesday that the Orange County spill was a direct result of container ships anchoring in close proximity to offshore pipelines. The board called for the U.S. Coast Guard to increase the buffer between anchored ships and pipelines.

The catastrophe also could have been avoided with improved communication and planning between those monitoring the massive container ships in Southern California's ports and the operators of the pipelines, investigators found.

The probe into the major oil spill off Huntington Beach confirmed initial findings that indicated a months-earlier anchor strike caused the undersea pipeline to burst, sending at least 25,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific. The investigation found no other possible cause of the damage, officials said at an almost four-hour NTSB meeting Tuesday.

NTSB investigators specifically blamed the "proximity of established anchorage positions to the pipeline," which made it difficult for crews to prevent the anchors of two container ships from striking the pipeline during stormy weather in January 2021.

 

Though two ships — the MSC Danit and Cosco Beijing — struck the pipeline with their anchors, investigators determined the former caused the "initiating event" that led to the spill.

NTSB officials said that, given the ships' locations, there was not sufficient time to weigh anchor or redirect the vessels when bad weather struck. This finding led the board to recommend that the U.S. Coast Guard revamp its plan governing the locations of ships anchored off Southern California to provide a greater margin of error among pipelines.

"Anchorages need to be designed to account for the size of vessels using them and the time it takes for these ships' crews to react when anchor dragging occurs," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a statement.

In the 2021 incident off Huntington Beach, the initial contact from the anchor caused "progressive cracks" in Houston-based Amplify Energy's 17.3-mile underwater pipeline, which eventually burst in October, almost nine months later. The two giant ships had been anchored outside the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports as vessels stacked up during the COVID-era supply chain backups, officials said.

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