As It Happens

California beaches hit by oil leak smell like a 'gas station'

A scientist who visited Southern California beaches affected by a massive oil leak Sunday said they smelled like "a gas station." 

John Fleming witnessed impact of massive underwater leak on beach habitat

Oil on the sand at Huntington Beach, Calif. As of Sunday, the oil plume from the 570,000-litre spill stretched along the popular shorelines of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, Huntington Beach city authorities said. (Submitted by John Fleming)

Story Transcript

A scientist who visited Southern California beaches affected by a massive oil spill Sunday said they smelled like "a gas station." 

The smell "is not something you really expect at the beach," said John Fleming, a senior scientist at the U.S.-based non-profit Center for Biological Diversity.

Since Saturday morning, an estimated 572,800 litres, or 3,000 barrels, of oil has leaked, forming a slick in the ocean that covered an area of about 20 square kilometres, according to Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr.

The slick affects Huntington Beach, a city about 65 km south of Los Angeles, as well as neighbouring Newport Beach.

"We are in the midst of a potential ecological disaster," Carr said in a news conference. "Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil."

The spill could mean that beaches could be closed for weeks or even months, according to Carr. 

The cause of the spill is suspected to be a leak in an underwater pipeline operated by Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Amplify Energy Corporation. 

Here is part of Fleming's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

John Fleming is a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, and works with the Center's Climate Law Institute. (Submitted by John Fleming)

John, can you describe what it was like to be on the beach yesterday?

Walking out to the beach, you get this smell of oil. You know, like imagine a gas station. It really smelled a lot like that, because that's essentially the same thing we're talking about.

And then walking along the beach, you can see, you know, where the water has come in and receded because what's left behind are these kind of like ribbons of oil and like, patches of oil in various places.

And you just see the birds ... interspersed with the oil, kind of walking among it and, you know, going about their regular activities, of course not realizing how toxic ... oil can be to bird species.

How likely is it that those birds can survive?

I will say that those birds were not, you know, covered in oil, which is when you will really potentially see some harmful effects ... because a bird that's covered in oil can't fly. It can't clean itself. It can't regulate its temperature even, which can lead to issues like hypothermia and death.

And there have been some reports of birds that have been covered in oil that have been [found] with ... some deaths and some, you know, treatment essentially. I didn't observe that myself when I was there yesterday, but there have been reports of that occurring.

And as you walked along the beach, how far and wide did you see this? What was it like to actually just walk by the water?

It's been reported that it's extending pretty much from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach, which is maybe about five miles [8 km] separation, you know, along the coast. But further down the coast, there's Laguna Beach, which is maybe 15 miles [24 km] from Huntington Beach, and they have closed their beaches. So they're at least expecting the potential of this to impact them, also.

Oil from an offshore oil rig washes up on the sand Sunday in Newport Beach, California. (David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

What did you see on your feet?

I was somewhat prepared for this. I did wear old shoes, but they were completely covered underneath in tar by the end of my walk. So, you know, completely ruined. 

What's your sense, given the size of this 100,000 gallons of oil that's estimated to have leaked, how extensive will the damage be to the beach, to the wildlife, to the ecosystem there?

There's this marsh in the area called Talbert Marsh, which is a wetland area... and wetlands are really hotspots for biodiversity.

Oil has seeped into that area as well, which they've been working on for, you know, at least the last 30 years trying to restore this area as a wetland. And there are 90 unique species of birds there and other wildlife. And ... they are expecting significant ecological damage. To what extent depends on, you know, how quickly this can be cleaned up and controlled and making certain that the pipeline that's responsible for this is plugged and not still seeping oil.

Every minute in this kind of situation counts, so if they would have started acting days earlier ... who knows how much you could have reduced the amount.- John Fleming, Center for Biological Diversity

There are people ... who were saying they first detected the smell that you described and other signs of the oil as early as Friday night on the beach. And so how long was it before there was a shutdown of the pipeline, before it was actually considered to be the emergency that obviously it is?

Correct, so people started reporting on Friday. People started observing oil in the water on Saturday. By latest reports, they started really addressing the issue maybe, Saturday night into Sunday, and now it's reported that they have addressed the issue or kind of basically sucked the oil that was in the pipeline out and hopefully [stopped] the leakage. But I haven't heard clear confirmation of that. But as of yesterday, they were actively addressing it.

Cleanup workers attempt to contain oil which seeped into Talbert Marsh, which is home to around 90 bird species, after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach, Calif. The spill forced the closure of the popular Great Pacific Airshow with authorities urging people to avoid beaches in the vicinity. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

If they had sounded the alarm as early as Friday night or early Saturday morning, how much more could this oil have been contained?

Every minute in this kind of situation counts, so if they would have started acting days earlier ... who knows how much you could have reduced the amount. Right now we're talking about ... almost 130,000 gallons of oil. And at this point, they've only cleaned up maybe about 3,000 gallons over the last few days. So, you know, there's a long way to go if you really want to clean up what needs to be cleaned up.

This is such an extraordinary stretch of the California coast, and so are there renewed questions about why there [are these] offshore oil facilities on the coast of California?

Our beaches, you know, are a source of recreation. They're economically useful with fisheries which ... have had to be closed down. And I think it does warrant and it is leading to more conversation about why we're continuing to have this old infrastructure in place when it has led to these kinds of accidents. There was a similar spill in 2015 along the Santa Barbara coast, which is also very beautiful.

[That] led to devastating ecological impacts. And now we're looking at the same thing here. So if we want to, you know, maintain our pristine beaches and keep that image of what California is, that's really at odds with California's fossil fuel production.


Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from Reuters and Associated Press. Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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