Over the span of roughly a week, more than 10,000 people signed up to volunteer their time cleaning up a disastrous offshore oil spill’s impacts to the Orange County coastline. 

And as initial estimates of the spill size have scaled down, beaches largely reopen, and local officials remark at how the damage could have been worse, feelings of distress across the county appear to have tempered into cautious optimism. 

Though experts warn the next danger lies in the assumption that Orange County is out of the woods.

The striking visual indicators that became synonymous with major oil spill disasters over the years — stretches of beach and shoreline coated in tar, littered with scores of dead animals — have been less prominent this time around.

“Our expectations were that it would be visually catastrophic, so now you get this sigh of relief, but that’s because the baseline has moved,” said Travis E. Huxman, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. 

“That doesn’t mean there are no serious issues to deal with, and those will play out in the long term,” Huxman said. “I hope that people don’t look at this event and see the lack of that visual catastrophe and then choose not to think about the long-run — where we’re headed.” 

Any time a natural environment’s chemistry is altered, “of course we worry about how things then behave in a food chain; we know how they impact the components of ecosystems; so we’ll be looking for those long term effects for some time,” Huxman said.

Disaster response authorities responding to the spill — coming from various agencies at the state and federal level, coalesced under the so-called “Unified Command” team — authorized the involvement of community cleanup volunteers across the county’s coastline on Oct. 5, on top of the paid workers already out there.

Three days later, those volunteers were deployed.

Now Unified Command authorities in a Monday information bulletin say they’ve more than filled the need for manpower:

“The volunteer program for this incident has received an enormous show of support for the environment and our community. With everyone who has registered at CalSpillWatch, we have received over 10,000 volunteers to assist with the Pipeline P00547 Incident response.”

About 4,000 of them are from Orange County, according to Unified Command.

“At this time, we have more than fulfilled our volunteer need and will be closing our volunteer registration portal,” the bulletin adds. 

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Patriot Environmental Services — trained spill response contractors — have been sent out to deal with the cleanup in Newport Beach.

“There’s a lot of people out there right now over the last four days and continuing and they’re not getting huge amounts of tar and oil off the beach it’s just sort of searching out what’s residual, which is what is showing up,” Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery said in a Tuesday phone call.

Cities on the coast are sampling and testing the waters for contaminants and oil as beaches have started to reopen in Orange County.

In Newport Beach, the city hired Eurofins Calscience to conduct a study of their water, which tested at 10 different locations. Two of those locations showed oil in the water, but at nontoxic levels.

Avery said there are “very trace amounts of contaminants in the water” and that sampling would probably go on for another couple of weeks.

He also said there is not a lot of oil washing up on shore, but there are balls of tar that are coming up.

“Obviously, it’s a very significant environmental event that really has affected our local beach community, and certainly threatens the environment. But at the same time, we feel very lucky that it wasn’t worse,” Avery said.

He added that because the weather was calm when the spill took place and not as windy as it was these last couple of days kept the situation from being worse. 

“That really was very helpful because it didn’t push the oil ashore as much as it could have,” Avery said.

The oil is headed south but the impacts of the spill are ongoing, he said.

“It’s still going to impact marine life as it goes, it’s going to impact vessels at sea — some vessels suck the oil up into their cooling system, which is really a bad thing,” he said. “We’re out of the danger zone from it but there’s still residual oil here and others will be impacted as it goes further south.”

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Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said her city continues to sample and test the waters within city limits — all the way from Sunset Beach up north to the jetty down south — and that the city is also doing assessment flyovers twice a day “looking for more oil off the coast.”

“From what we’re told, most of the oil has moved south, but we’re still looking to see if any oil is still approaching our more environmentally sensitive areas, we still have hundreds of people on the ground looking for tarballs,” Carr said. 

Though there’s cause for optimism, she added. 

The Talbert Marsh in her city is a sensitive wetlands system and coastal habitat for a variety of marine life and bird species. It was the only marsh to be contaminated by the oil spill. 

“Remember how black all the rocks were?” Carr said to a reporter, recalling a news conference at the area convened by state Sen. Dave Min during the early days of the spill response efforts.  

“Totally clean now. Even I was stunned, they really came in and it looks totally different. It’s amazing how much they’ve done in the last two days.”

Carr said conservationists working to clean the area told her there’s still damage below the water surface at the wetlands, and that she’ll be sending a letter to the County of Orange requesting that current county plans to restore the site be expedited. 

“I’ll be sending a letter to the county to support the restoration of that … that riprap is supposed to be replaced and the county has a plan to do just that, so we are pushing the county to start restoration work early,” Carr said. “I’ll be sending a letter to the county requesting they don’t wait — let’s not waste time.”

“Right now, everything looks good and we’re continuing to make sure the beaches look pristine, trying to get back to some sense of normalcy,” she added. 

Meanwhile, tarballs are now washing ashore in San Diego County. 

“We’re praying for our friends down south, and we’re following that as well,” Carr said. “But it looks like we dodged a bullet up here.”

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.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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