As an asphalt-like smell lingers in the air of Orange County, there are unanswered questions — and looming alarms — over whether it’s safe to breathe near what has become a hundred-thousand-gallon oil spill off the coast. 

Residents online and speaking to Voice of OC said they started smelling fumes as early as Friday, yet there was much delay in getting information behind the cause.

OC Oil Spill

Latest Figures
  • Authorities now estimate a spill size range between 25,000 gallons to a maximum of 131,000 gallons
  • 5,544 gallons of oily water retrieved
  • Approximately 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines
  • 14,060 feet of boom laid to try to curb oil spread
  • More than 900 people on the ground in cleanup effort
  • General questions: 714-374-1702
  • Do not approach affected wildlife, call in a report: 877-823-6926
  • Assist with animals: 714-374-5587
  • Help with cleanups: 714-374-1702
  • File a claim: 866-985-8366

Orange County’s coast has some air quality monitoring systems, but it is not known what those systems lack in comparison to four more complex, permanent air quality stations installed in the cities of Anaheim, La Habra and Mission Viejo.

Air quality officials — in response to Voice of OC questions about this in October last year — said they have not historically seen a need to have such monitoring along the coast, thus the permanent stations are situated more inland.

On Monday, South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) officials said they deployed mobile air quality monitoring systems along the coast.

Though the crisis may not just affect coastal residents.

“As long as we’re not having Santa Ana winds, then yes, the winds will blow from that oil slick onto our inland communities.”

Dr. Kathleen Treseder, a Biology Professor at UC Irvine

“I don’t know what might be in that plume of air, but I have seen people reporting on Twitter and Facebook that they can smell asphalt …  enough that it’s a nuisance for them, and I’m guessing that if they can smell these particulates, there are likely components in there we should really consider and (they may) potentially be harmful,” Treseder added.

Crude oil is shown in the Pacific Ocean offshore of Orange County, Oct. 3, 2021. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

On top of that, the southbound oil slick’s potential to wipe out local ocean water microbes, which help remove air pollution, means the disaster’s air quality effect may surface on more than one front.

Namely, ocean microbes in Orange County’s last remaining — and at-risk — coastal wetlands help convert nutrients and pollutants “to forms that are often benign to us. If they’re wiped out we might not see those conversions happening.”

Treseder said it has yet to be determined what type of hazard, exactly, the slick poses to the wetlands and these micro-sized marine life forms — but that she and others at UCI dispatched sampling teams as early as Monday to assess the water.

“One of the things I worry most about actually is, wetlands are very important for removing nitrogen pollution, and nitrogen is what causes algal blooms, if those are wiped out … nitrogen that was being converted to gas in benign forms might head out into the ocean and that might make the situation worse.”

The smell of asphalt filled Newport Beach resident Susan Skinner’s nose Friday morning, while she was out swimming. 

“It smelled like tar, like asphalt. I thought they must have been resurfacing the street, kind of weird,” she said.

Newport Beach resident Susan Skinner

Then she could smell it on the other side of the bay, driving to her mother’s house later that day.

“It was clear something serious was going on,” she said, adding she was driving down Newport Coast Road when she saw patches in the water. “It had a different look and appearance, it was pretty horrifying.”

Since then, Orange County’s coastline has all but shut down due to a 126,000-gallon (as of Sunday morning) oil spill, the cause of which is still unclear but is now prompting concerns over whether residents in the nearby coastal areas may be breathing in harmful air. 

In the hours and days following, Skinner said there’s been much frustration about delay in information getting to residents who may be breathing up all that toxic air after 

“I’ve heard a lot of frustration that it seemed like there was a delay in answers,” Skinner said, adding residents were initially told that authorities were looking into it but “never heard anything more.”

“People I’ve talked to were frustrated that it kind of seemed like a pretty substantial odor and there were no answers on that, that came to us right away,” Skinner said.

The view of air quality levels from the World Air Quality Index as of noon Monday, Oct. 4. Credit: AQICN

“Everyone in my Orange County neighborhood has been talking about the smell of asphalt or gas in the air since Friday. We thought it was jet fuel from the Pacific Air Show. I was surfing in Huntington on Saturday. They didn’t announce the oil spill until Sunday morning. Wild,” wrote one person in a Monday tweet.

Currently, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has no formal, regulatory air monitors in Orange County’s coastal cities. 

“Monitoring locations are based on the maximum expected concentration of both ozone and PM2.5,” said the district’s spokesman, Bradley Whitaker, in response to Voice of OC questions in October last year about this. 

“The highest concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 tend to be inland. Orange County typically measures lower concentrations than the remainder of the basin, and thus has fewer monitors.”

Asked about the current lack of regulatory air monitors under the district in light of the oil spill, Whitaker said in an email that “South Coast AQMD has deployed mobile monitoring along the coast.”

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