The impact of crude oil slicks on sensitive coastal habitats can be significantly lessened if floating barriers are deployed immediately, experts say.

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
Contacts
  • 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

Yet there are serious questions as to whether or not that happened, with what has become a 144,000-gallon oil spill polluting Orange County beaches and wetlands.

Authorities are using a number of methods to address the spill — deploying boats to skim floating oil and laying 11,360 feet of floating barrier in local waters to curb the slick’s spread and movement.

Such barriers, also known as “booms,” are generally effective, says Linda Bui, a Professor of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University. 

If they’re placed in the water early.

“It doesn’t look like that happened here,” Bui said. 

Since the oil spill was first spotted Friday night, there have been questions about why the Coast Guard didn’t respond to it and alert local emergency responders until Saturday. 

Today, at the Orange County Supervisors’ regular meeting Michelle Anderson, who heads up the OC Sheriff’s Department Emergency Management Division, confirmed to supervisors that she wasn’t alerted about the oil threat until Saturday. 

Coast Guard officials and those representing the operator company responsible for the spill, Amplify Energy, also faced numerous reporter questions during a Monday news conference about why they didn’t act sooner.

Few answers came out of them beyond an explanation of response protocol, as the gathered press corps insisted on the same question.

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Those working to save one of California’s largest remaining — and at-risk — saltwater marshes in Huntington Beach are counting on booms to protect what has become a crucial migration point and habitat for rare and endangered species. 

“The last I heard, which was a few hours ago, was that oil has washed up on Bolsa Chica State Beach and Sunset Beach which means it’s directly across from the Bolsa Chica Wetlands,” said Kim Kolpin of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust conservancy group. “As of right now, the booms I’m told are working and holding oil out of the wetland system.”

Oil has already breached the Talbert Marsh further south in Huntington Beach — a wetlands system which shares some of the same ecological characteristics as Bolsa Chica. 

Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the state Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, assured a reporter on Monday that the breached marsh saw “just a light sheen, the other sensitive sites have strategies (like booms) deployed to protect them.”

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But how effective are booms? 

Bui said it depends on which booms are deployed:

“One is called hard boom — usually brightly colored, looks like plastic or rubber and usually an air bladder that floats in the shape of a line, plus there’s sheeting material that goes down into the water to act as a physical barrier — they’ll use that in conjunction with skimming and recovery of oil out in the ocean. Of course waves and choppiness can diminish that. They also will use that to protect assets, environments.”

Another type of boom is what’s known as an absorbent or “soft” boom, Bui said. “That was visible in some footage I saw.”

“The challenge with soft booms is they’re absorbing, and they can absorb a limited amount. Then, once it’s been deployed and used, its hazardous waste, it has to be removed … but it’s a great strategy for absorbing oil sheens.”

But they have shortcomings. 

“That boom is not going to be as effective at capturing, in the videos you can see, stuff kind of looks like peanut butter, long chain hydrocarbons — chemical constituents of petroleum — that is just too viscous, it might stick to a boom, but it’s not going to absorb.”

Bui also points to skimming, which is the act of trying to remove oil and hydrocarbons floating in the water from boats.

“The other thing that they do is, once the oil comes into the shore and onto sand, they will hire people to physically remove that sand and either send it through a cleaning process on the beach to remove oil from the sand or they’ll bag it up and take it away, so that’s very work intensive.”

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Boom technology is at least 60 years old, Bui said, and “usually booms help but again they can get blown around” and there’s a chance oil can still get around them.

Especially if the water is choppy. 

In an ideal situation, there wouldn’t be a thunderstorm. 

“Again, that was not the case,” Bui said, pointing to the fact that a thunderstorm halted cleanup efforts for 18 hours, until Tuesday morning. “So, Mother Nature I don’t think was participating, she was not cooperating.”

Bui did say she would rather “see layers of boom than no boom at all.”

“This is a pretty major spill — it’s not deepwater horizon, but it’s a pretty big one.”

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