The pipeline that leaked more than 550,000 litres of oil into the water off Southern California was split open and apparently dragged along the ocean floor, according to authorities.

Workers clean oil in an inlet in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Tuesday. Officials said Tuesday that the pipeline that is the source of the massive oil spill off the coast of Southern California was split apart and dragged along the ocean floor. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

The underwater pipeline that leaked more than 550,000 litres of oil into the water off Southern California was split open and apparently dragged more than 30 metres along the ocean floor, possibly by a ship’s anchor, officials said Tuesday.

The segment of the pipe that was dragged was 1.2 kilometres long, and had a gash that was more than 30 centimetres wide, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Preliminary reports suggested the failure may have been “caused by an anchor that hooked the pipeline, causing a partial tear,” federal transportation investigators said. But there was no confirmation Tuesday that an anchor caused the tear.

The break in the line occurred about eight kilometres offshore at a depth of about 30 metres beneath the surface, according to the investigators. Their findings were included in an order from the Department of Transportation blocking the company that operates the pipeline from restarting it without extensive inspections and testing.

The order did not identify the source of the investigators’ information, and agency officials did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

A warning sign is displayed as workers clean a contaminated beach in Huntington Beach on Tuesday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said Tuesday that divers determined about 1,219 metres of the pipeline were “laterally displaced” by about 32 metres. She did not say what might have caused the displacement, but noted the pipeline had a 33-centimetre gash in it. 

The pipeline is operated by Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Amplify Energy Corporation. The head of Amplify said the pipe was displaced into “almost a semicircle.”

“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bow string. And so, at its widest point, it is 105 feet away from where it was,” Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said at a news conference Tuesday.

Coast Guard’s response called into question

The Coast Guard did not investigate initial reports of the spill for nearly 12 hours because it did not have enough corroborating evidence and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology, an official told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday.

Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer acknowledged that the Coast Guard was alerted Friday night by a “Good Samaritan” that there was a sheen on the water.

Penoyer initially said the Coast Guard put out a broadcast to the many cargo and tanker ships anchored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, along with oil rigs, seeking more information, but did not receive any response.

At a news conference later Tuesday, Ore disputed that and said the Coast Guard did not broadcast any information to ships or oil platforms.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore speaks about the spill at a news conference in Long Beach, Calif., on Tuesday. (Stefanie Dazio/The Associated Press)

Penoyer said it was common to get reports of a sheen near a busy seaport. It would take 12 hours before an oil company would report the spill that officials estimated to be 572,807 litres of heavy crude.

“In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at that time,” Penoyer said. “So putting yourself in the position of what they did know, this is a very normal process.”

Two early calls about the spill came into the National Response Center (NRC), which is staffed by the Coast Guard and notifies other agencies of disasters for quick response.

The first was from an anchored ship that noticed a sheen on the water. The second came six hours later from a federal agency that said a possible oil slick was spotted on satellite imagery, according to reports by the California Office of Emergency Services.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Newport Beach, Calif., on Tuesday. (Jeff Gritchen/The Orange County Register via AP)

Beaches, coastal fisheries closed

The spill was first spotted Saturday morning and since then an estimated 572,800 litres, or 3,000 barrels, of oil has leaked, forming a slick in the ocean that covered an area of about 20 square kilometres, according to officials with the town of Huntington Beach.

The spill has fouled kilometres of beaches and protected marshlands along Orange County, Calif., and crews have been scrambling to contain it and clean it up. 

The beaches could remain closed for weeks or longer, a major hit to the local economy. Coastal fisheries in the area are also closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley expressed concern that the company could withhold evidence. But the county’s emergency manager, Michelle Anderson, reassured the board of supervisors on Tuesday that the Coast Guard was on the scene as well to make sure the probe is independent.

“It is an investigation with objective parties involved, so that we will eventually know the outcome,” Anderson said.

The spill plan warned that a break in the pipeline could cause “substantial harm to the environment” and that in a worst-case scenario, 3,111 barrels of oil could be released from the pipeline.

WATCH | Massive oil spill on California shores:  

Massive oil spill washes up on California shores

The equivalent of nearly 3,000 barrels of oil washed up on the California coast south of Los Angeles. 1: 40

Willsher said required agencies were notified “instantly” when the company recognized the leak was from its pipe. However, records show the spill was not reported by Amplify Energy, but by Witt O’Brien’s, a crisis and emergency management firm listed on the spill response plan as the point of contact to notify the NRC.

The report said the leaking pipe had been shut off, but containment was not confirmed.

Potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the Orange County district attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.

Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost.

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