And then came the investigations. 

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

This is the part of the disaster where legislators get tough.

After the oil spill. 

A slew of congressional hearings, state select committees and law enforcement investigations in coming weeks are going to be looking at this month’s devastating oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach. 

Among the first out of the gate this week with a catch-up, oil spill offense was CA Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Bonta on Monday announced a state Department of Justice probe into the oil spill, traveling to Orange County for a briefing on the situation by the Unified Response Command, which includes the state Department of Fish and Game, the Coast Guard and the pipeline operator, Amplify Energy.

“My office is committed to devoting the people and the resources necessary to ensure this environmental disaster is fully investigated, and we will follow the facts wherever they lead us,” said Bonta in a news release

Bonta traveled to Orange County with U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, who alongside CA Senator Dianne Feinstein is calling on the Department of Transportation to investigate and offer suggestions for getting tougher regulations on offshore oil rigs. 

“The trade-off between oil production and environmental harm is simply not one we should be making any longer, especially given how fossil fuel emissions are exacerbating the climate crisis,” said Padilla and Feinstein in a joint statement

Both Senators said they’re concerned about both environmental and economic damage caused by the oil spill.

“Already, this oil has seeped into environmentally sensitive wetlands, endangering birds and other wildlife, and forcing the closure of beaches that are the economic engines of entire communities. I am committed to fulfilling the promises we made to our children and our constituents that we will act boldly to meet the urgency of this crisis,” reads their statement.

State Legislators also jumped into the fray on Monday, announcing their own efforts to get tough on oil rigs.

State Assembly Speaker Anthony Renden (D-Lakewood) announced the formation of a Select Committee to investigate the oil spill, noting the panel would be chaired by State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), who requested its formation.  

The Select Committee on the Orange County Oil Spill — which will have additional members named later — is expected to hold hearings “on the causes and potential lapses that led to the oil spill, as well as the spill’s impact on the environment and surrounding communities,” according to a release from Renden’s office. 

The committee is also slated to help figure out who’s responsible for the spill and discuss potential changes to state law, according to the statement.

“Oversight is one of the key functions of the Assembly. This spill demands that we step up and exercise that role. I look to Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris to guide the work of this committee to generate the results we need. Our future policies on oil extraction must require safety and environmental protection of Californians at the coast and inland,” said Speaker Rendon in his news release

In a joint statement with Rendon, Petrie-Norris said, “The committee will focus on getting answers to the many questions surrounding this disaster, the lessons we must learn and the changes we must implement to ensure that this does not happen again on our watch.”

Several Orange County members of Congress later this week will also get their own chance to take a swing during an expected series of congressional hearings.  

Three Orange County representatives, Katie Porter, Mike Levin and Alan Lowenthal, serve on the House Natural Resources Committee, which is holding the hearings .

This coming week, that committee is expected to consider a pair of bills seeking to strengthen regulation and oversight of offshore oil drilling and hold an oversight hearing on abandoned offshore fossil fuel infrastructure. 

“The oil and gas industry has ignored public health and the environment for decades, and what’s happening in Huntington Beach today will keep happening to more American communities until Congress steps in,” said Committee Chairman Rauíl M. Grijalva, (D-Ariz.) in a news release

“As long as the industry is given a free hand to operate with impunity and dodge responsibility for the mess they cause and leave behind, there will be more disasters. This Committee is moving quickly to protect our coastlines and the communities that rely on them by setting the standards the industry refuses to set for itself.”

Indeed, the spilling of up to 131,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline connected to the platform called Elly about 4.5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, continues to trigger myriad questions about how closely such operations are regulated. 

In looking at the original 1979 approval documents for the Elly platform, Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda found that there were robust discussions about burying such pipelines 10 feet beneath the surface to avoid anchor dragging strikes such as the one that Coast Guard officials believe was the reason behind the most recent leak. 

Yet that clearly didn’t happen. 

In addition, original approval documents also show that the pipeline was supposed to be equipped with automatic shut off valves

So why did oil continue to flow for more than three hours after a leak was detected?

And why did it take the company so long after to inform anybody?

And why doesn’t the public — whose health and safety is at risk and fund the response agencies — have a front seat at the United Command?

It seems every time there’s a natural disaster, despite every manual calling for a robust public Information plan, reporters are always left interviewing bewildered officials at limited press conferences. 

Voice of OC reporting fellow, Noah Biesiada noted how much confusion local officials endured in the first days of the spill with seemingly inconsistent reports from the U.S. Coast Guard. 

When it comes to public information, it seems disaster response officials only want to engage the public as volunteers to help clean up all the oil spilled by the privateers who profited off the natural resource for decades. 

Voice of OC reporter Brandon Pho highlighted that bizarre scenario from the beaches, where volunteers wondered whether they were being spread too thin. 

All this left me wondering: After all those years of profit, why do we rely on volunteer networks to clean up beaches when there’s a spill?

Now the last huge oil spill off California’s coast in January 1969 pretty much launched the modern day environmental movement in Congress. 

By January 1970, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, called the Magna Carta of the nation’s environmental laws, which set an ambitious policy goal of promoting the enhancement of the environment. 

By the end of 1970, President Nixon had established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

That same year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which gave the EPA the powers it needed to confront pollution with national regulatory programs as opposed to just guidelines. 

Out in California that same year, came the adoption of the California Environmental Quality Act, establishing statewide policies on environmental protection. 

Just a few years later, in 1972, Congress would enact the Clean Water Act, overruling a presidential veto from President Nixon.

The next year, Nixon signed into the law an enhanced Endangered Species Act.

And by 1976, California legislators would enact their own Coastal Act focused on environmental protection. 

That’s a pretty impressive bipartisan legislative record over the course of just a few years.

I wonder what kind of legacy today’s legislators will leave? 

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