For a week, Orange County residents and officials have waited for a definitive answer as to who, beyond Amplify Energy, came up short in responding to an oil spill off the coast — and who’s going to be held responsible.

No answers to that question have come beyond speculation at news conferences and in the media, largely because the only officials available for questioning over the last week have been Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife officials working cleanup — not the investigators. 

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

Determining who’s to blame will be up to federal and state officials, who may finally enter the public spotlight in the coming days, cleanup authorities said at a Thursday news conference. 

But when, exactly?

“We will know by tomorrow (Friday), come hell or high water,” said state Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris to reporters.

The investigation at the federal level will be led by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and by the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) at the state level. 

“Investigations like this could hold not just civil liability but potentially criminal liability, which is why they are being incredibly meticulous about building a case and I think incredibly cautious about the information that gets shared to the community,” Petrie-Norris said.

“I don’t expect they’re going to come tomorrow and share a lot of details about the investigation, but what I want them to tell you, what I want them to tell me, and what I want them to tell the public is, what can we expect? When are we going to get answers?”

Over a series of news conferences since disaster response efforts began, reporters were visibly flustered about why authorities leading the effort through a taxpayer-funded, inter-agency coordination known as “Unified Command” — of which Amplify Energy is a part — wouldn’t say anything.

“The reason folks are so tight-lipped is we don’t want to jeopardize that investigation in any form,” Petrie-Norris said on Thursday.

That same news conference, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said “I understand that federal and state investigative teams are moving forward.”

Most recently, Voice of OC revealed that the pipeline which caused the spill last weekend was supposed to have automatic shut-off equipment to immediately stop oil spills and alert a control room, according to a copy of the original 1979 approval records. 

[Read: Why Didn’t an Auto Shut-Off System Prevent the Massive Oil Leak off OC’s Coast?]

It’s not clear if the auto shut-off equipment was in place and operating properly when the pipeline leaked up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil.

In addition, some called for the pipe to be 10 feet underground when the permit was approved in 1979.

Recent ROV footage released by the Coast Guard seems to indicate that didn’t happen. 

There’s been much speculation about what exactly caused the spill, with media outlets most recently postulating that a ship anchor dragged an oil pipeline.

Apparent communication gaps by the U.S. Coast Guard and Amplify Energy have also fueled public outrage.

“When we first heard about it on Saturday morning at 9:00, we had just heard that there was something in the water out there but there wasn’t any major concern at that time,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr at the news conference, speaking after Coast Guard and state authorities. 

Carr added: “So it was really as the day sort of progressed and started getting some conflicting reports saying, ‘Oh this oil is gonna hit your shores on Monday,’ well, we had people out in the water saying, ‘No, this oil is here, right here, right now.’”

[Read: Series of Information, Communication Gaps Dominate First Days of OC Oil Spill]

Meanwhile, authorities appear to be leaning on volunteers for help cleaning up the beaches — even as Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week indicated the state aimed at getting 1,500 responders on scene.

It’s been six days since the initial sightings and reports of the spill, and around 800 people were “conducting response operations” at the beaches as of Thursday morning, according to Unified Command. 

Workers in green vests and white protective clothing on Wednesday told Voice of OC reporters at various beaches they were being spread thin and needed more help.

[Read: OC Spill Cleanup Facing Lack of Workers as Lines of Oil Continue to Wash Ashore]

Authorities at the Thursday news conference said they expect to get cleanup volunteers deployed fairly soon, though people online — namely, responding to various Voice of OC articles about the struggle to staff up on spill response — said it shouldn’t fall on the public.

“Volunteers? The company behind the spill should be paying them $50/hour,” wrote the Twitter account for the Fullerton Rag, a local civic affairs blog, responding to one story.

There are also lingering questions over what it truly means to clean up the coast. 

Due to the Coast Guard and Amplify Energy delays in response, some experts raised concerns with Voice of OC about whether the deployment of booms and other cleaning measures came on time.

[Read: OC Oil Cleanup Complicated by Coast Guard Delays in Initial Response]

Meanwhile, the effects of Orange County’s worst environmental disaster in years appear to have gone beyond Orange County.

Ore and other officials on Thursday now say they’ve received reports about oil showing up in San Diego County. 

Congressman Mike Levin, who represents a district straddling Orange and San Diego counties, tweeted a photo he said he received showing a tarball at a beach in Carlsbad. 

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