A large oil spill off the southern California coast left fish dead, birds mired in petroleum and wetlands contaminated, in what local officials called an environmental catastrophe.
Birds and fish had begun washing up on the shore as a 126,000-gallon slick of crude oil choked waters south of Los Angeles, after spewing from a pipeline connected to an offshore rig.
A 15-mile (24-kilometer) stretch of coastline was closed to the public and fishing was halted as crews scrambled to clean up one of California’s biggest spills in decades.
Beaches could remain closed for weeks or even months, Huntingdon Beach Mayor Kim Carr warned.
“Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are completely covered in oil,” she said.
How do oil slicks spread in the seas?
This new environmental catastrophe is not the largest of its kind in the world, but it sheds light again on the risks that can result from such accidents, which annually – according to some estimates – cause more than 300 thousand tons of oil to be poured into the seas and oceans of different regions in the world.
When a spill occurs, the oil does not mix with water but rather floats to the surface to spread over it over a short period of time, in the form of a very thin layer and blocking sunlight from reaching oceanic environments, which can severely affect marine organisms, and thus the entire food chain of the ecosystem.
The oil slick continues to expand on the surface of the water until it becomes a very thin layer with a thickness of less than 0.01 millimeters (one hundredth of a millimeter), and it can extend for hundreds of kilometers, sometimes reaching the shores by the movement of waves and ocean currents.
Meanwhile, the compounds that make up the oil react differently when spilled, some vaporizing in small amounts, others slowly decomposing, while the heavy compounds settle over time and pollute the environment in the deep seas and oceans.
Although some microbes break down and consume petroleum compounds, this in no way compensates for the damage incurred during a spill.
Multiple risks and slow decomposition
Perhaps the most visible part of the dangers of the oil spill is the harsh effects of oil on the coast through the images of birds and marine mammals covered in it, with oil slicks scattered all over the place. When the oil slick reaches shore, it clings to every rock and grain of sand, posing a long-term danger to the ecosystem around it as the oil degrades too slowly.
For example, despite the massive clean-up efforts that followed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, a study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the sands of the Alaskan coast were still saturated with about 98 m3 of oil after about 4 decades of the accident. The scientists who conducted the study concluded that the remaining oil decreases by less than 4% annually.
The damage that oil can inflict on living organisms varies between those resulting from direct damage such as contact and ingestion, and those resulting from the consumption of food that contains oil.
For example, when oil coats a bird, it prevents its feathers from repelling water and preventing it from flying. The oil also destroys the fur of marine mammals, which acts as an insulator to keep the animal warm in cold waters, endangering their lives.
The Exxon Valdez accident, for example, led to the deaths of nearly 250,000 birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 seals, and up to 22 killer whales, according to the ecological site Treehugger.
Oil spills also destroy natural habitats in the deep sea and ocean, where there is a very delicate balance in coral reefs and shallow water habitats.
The plankton at the bottom of the food chain is often killed by oil spills due to changes in water and a lack of sunlight under the oil slick, and this effect travels up the chain.
Devastating for our marine life
Officials have warned people not to touch or try to save any wildlife they find, but to instead call local authorities to alert them to animals affected by the oil.
“This is just devastating for our marine life, our habitat, our economics, our entire community,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said Sunday.
“Our natural habitat we’ve spent decades building up and creating is just damaged in a day.”
The spill originated near the Elly platform, which was built in 1980 and is one of 23 oil and gas drilling platforms in federal waters off California, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The disaster has already reignited a debate about the presence of oil rigs and pipelines near the coast of Southern California.
“The oil spill… is as tragic as it was preventable,” said Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat who represents the area in the US Congress.
“This environmental catastrophe highlights the simple fact that where you drill, you spill.
“This will be devastating not only to our marine wildlife and ecosystem, but also to the livelihoods of our coastal communities which are built around fishing, tourism, and recreation.
“As long as these platforms and pipelines remain, our coastal communities remain under threat from potential disasters like we are now seeing.”