Gulf spill puts county crews on alert

With seven active oil platforms off its coast, Orange County has the potential for a devastating leak similar to the one caused by an explosion last month in the Gulf of Mexico.

Located off the coasts of Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, the platforms are operated by three oil exploration companies: Pacific Energy Resources, a Long Beach company that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; Aera Energy, a Bakersfield corporation; and DCOR, a Ventura-based company.

If one of the platforms were to leak, the U.S. Coast Guard would be the lead agency to respond, according to Lt. Anastacia Thorsson.

She said Orange County's sensitive habitat means that local emergency crews are on their toes.

"Here the response time would have to be faster [than the Gulf] because our oil rigs are much closer to shore … [the Environmental Protection Agency] would get involved very, very quickly," Thorsson said.

Santa Barbara's infamous spill in 1969 showed the potential damage to the California coast. A blowout on a platform (now operated by DCOR) spewed 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. It soaked 40 miles of coastline.

Large numbers of seals and dolphins were poisoned and the oil killed thousands of sea birds, spurring passage of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Orange County has its own experience dealing with a major oil spill. In February 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its own anchor and gashed holes in its hull while trying to dock near the Huntington Beach Pier.

The damaged tanker, operated by British Petroleum, dumped more than 400,000 gallons of crude oil into the surf.

A day later, the black smelly goo came onshore, eventually coating 15 miles of sand in Surf City and Newport Beach with toxic gunk. Thousands of birds and fish died while 1,300 workers mopped up the mess at a cost of $10 million.

The Coast Guard has a plan for any future spills in Orange County, Thorsson said. At a strategic location it would set up a central command center to coordinate rescue, containment and clean-up efforts by public and private entities.

Pacific Energy, Aera and DCOR are required to file their own contingency plans with federal and state officials, undergo frequent inspections and practice emergency drills with their employees.

All three firms provide funding for an oil spill co-op called the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), which provides the ships, equipment and trained personnel for rapid responses.

DCOR has a training exercise posted online showing how drillers lower a boom into the water and MSRC vessels create a U-shaped enclosure around a potential spill.

The oil spill drill ends with the following bullet points:





Officials at Aera Energy list worker safety and environmental protection as their top priorities. Surprise drills are hosted on the platform called Emmy, where numerous upgrades have been made, including earthquake reinforcements, computerized monitoring and fire prevention improvements.

The Coast Guard will host a large-scale training exercise later this month in which oil spill containment will be one component of a terrorism drill called Operation Port Protector.

The exercise will be combined with a statewide drill dubbed Operation Golden Guardian 2010, which will be the largest catastrophic training event in the United States.

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