Disaster response officials and Orange County public health leaders are saying beaches are safe to go swimming at after two weeks of oil spill cleanup, but not all the experts are convinced. 

It comes as cities along the coast had been doing their own testing to determine local water safety, lacking a centralized testing system. 

“What I’m disappointed about is there would be this leadership vacuum,” said Travis E. Huxman, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. “It points to how the system thinks about these catastrophes after-the-fact. They’re afterthoughts.

Nearly two weeks since the start of the spill, U.S Coast Guard officials released their newest estimates on the size of the spill, putting the total leakage at around 25,000 gallons, less than 20% of their earlier reports according to the Associated Press. 

The Coast Guard did not post any information on social media reaffirming that statistic, and did not respond to requests for comment. 

It also remains unclear whether or not impacted cities were informed about the update. 

When asked for comment on the issue, spokespeople for the cities of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach said they had not been told about any shift in the spill size estimates, despite being contributors to the task force responding to the spill. 

“The water and sediment data received from Orange County samples do not indicate a public health concern for short term exposures from the use of beaches in the county,” wrote Unified Command, an interagency task force led by the Coast Guard responding to the spill in a press release on Wednesday afternoon. 

The message was echoed by the Orange County Health Care Agency in an Oct. 14 news release.

Though Dr. Clayton Chau, county Health Officer and county Health Care Agency Director, in that same statement urged caution:

“Based on the recent results of our air and water quality samples, we ask that our residents and visitors exercise caution if you are resuming recreational activities at our beaches in order to limit the risk of contaminants being absorbed through the skin, inhalation, or ingestion.”

Unified Command, in deeming the waters safe for short-term exposure, also specified:

“This recommendation does not apply to fishing and harvesting activities.” 

Those activities, in fact, remain shut down.

All fishing off most of the Orange County coast is still closed, from the west jetty of Anaheim Bay to the southern border of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

A news release from the Coast Guard promised further updates on fishing closures in the coming days, saying laboratory analysis of the fisheries was underway in San Diego. 

Meanwhile, cities like Huntington Beach have taken it upon themselves to sample and test the waters off their share of the coast — tests which have even prompted the reopening of areas like Huntington State Beach. 

But several coastal cities had been doing their own testing, without any centralized system.

[Read: Orange County Beaches Begin Reopening Following Oil Spill, Cleanup is Ongoing]

“I know the consulting firms doing the water quality testing and they’re great and trustworthy,” Huxman said. “What worries me is that, to sample for water quality and the human use of the water — it’s an intractable model, there’s no data before (the oil spill).”

Huxman said the difficulties in responding to issues of water safety on a regional scale come from treating environmental disasters as an afterthought. 

He drew an example.

“I think of these problems like the problems between the states. In California, when there’s a car wreck on the freeway, the safety crews, CalTrans, the emergency services — they actually clean up the road. They put down sand and brush all the glass away and stuff,” he said. 

He added: “But I lived in other states, and they don’t do that everywhere, that’s an afterthought for some places. Some of that comes from California being proactive.”

Yet, on the issue of environmental, man-made disasters: “I think it’s something we’re all negligent about,” Huxman said.

The estimated size of the spill has fluctuated wildly since officials began their response to the spill on Oct. 2. Initial estimates said roughly 3,000 barrels of oil were spilled, or nearly 126,000 gallons. 

On Oct. 5, nearly four days after the spill started, officials updated that statistic to as much as 146,000 gallons, saying that was the absolute upper limit expected for the spill’s size. 

Two days later, Coast Guard officials said the spill was between 24,000 and 131,000 gallons. 

Most Orange County cities had already reopened their beaches earlier this week, with Laguna Beach reopening the water Thursday morning. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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