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Investigations continue into oil leak off the coast of Southern California

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A team of divers have found what's believed to be the source of the major oil spill polluting the Southern California coast. Officials say a section of an oil pipeline appears to have been dragged across the ocean floor. NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering the spill, and he joins us now. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Explain how an oil pipeline gets dragged across the ocean floor...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...If you can.

ROTT: Yeah, you know, it's a bit of a puzzle. It's definitely the question that everybody's kind of waiting for an answer to at this point. You know, obviously, it's not something that would have happened naturally. There was no significant seismic activity, whether that could have caused it. I don't know of any krakens floating around in the Pacific right now.

MARTIN: Right.

ROTT: And while the pipeline and offshore oil platform are both pretty old, it's not common for, you know, a section of 16-inch steel pipe covered in concrete to move by more than 100 feet...

MARTIN: Yeah.

ROTT: ...You know, as the divers say this one did. To give you a visual, the president of the pipeline operator described - the pipeline is almost looking like a bow string.

MARTIN: Wow.

ROTT: They also saw a 13-inch gash along the length of the pipe, which is where, you know, this oil likely leaked from. There's been a lot of speculation that a ship may have dropped anchor in the wrong spot, catching the pipeline and causing it to move. You know, that is a really busy part of the Southern California coast, where you almost always see the horizon dotted with large container ships waiting to come or go from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But the U.S. Coast Guard, other officials, at this point have not confirmed whether or not an anchor was the cause.

MARTIN: Do they know when the leak started?

ROTT: Yeah, so people first started smelling the oil spill on Friday afternoon last week. That's when the Coast Guard says it received an initial report about a sheen in the water. They were not able to confirm that Friday evening. Here's Rebecca Orr, the commander of the Coast Guard for that area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REBECCA ORR: It took about two hours on Saturday morning where we began to detect oil in the water. And at that point, we also diverted a Coast Guard aircraft to begin to assess that situation. And that is when a full-scale mobilization effort began.

ROTT: The oil slick was clear, you know, from the air and the surface of the water. Boaters were reporting, you know, driving through it, seeing dolphins swimming through the sheen. And by Sunday, oil had already started washing up on shores near Huntington Beach, which was polluting beaches, marshes and at least one wetland in the area.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm looking right now at photos of some of the beaches that have been affected. And, I mean, there's just this black gunk all over them...

ROTT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Pooling up in the water, on the sand itself. How bad is the environmental damage, Nate?

ROTT: Well, it's not good. Initial reports were that, roughly, 125,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, but that's since been raised to potentially 144,000 gallons. You know, and look; that's, you know, pretty small when you compare it to, say, Exxon Valdez or the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which spewed an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific further up the coast. But it's still really not good. You know, oil can gum up a bird's feathers, making it so it can't fly or regulate its temperature. It can kill fish, dolphins, whales, crabs. And it can really harm species when it gets into fragile marshes or wetlands, which are hugely biodiverse and already really, really threatened and rare here in the urban sprawl that is Southern California. And unfortunately, that's already happened.

Here's Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley, who visited one of those areas that's been impacted.

KATRINA FOLEY: It was very terrible-smelling. There were little birds walking around on the oil - and just oil everywhere. So I'm worried that the damage to the wetlands is pretty significant and will be long-lasting.

ROTT: And, you know, that could not only have an impact on the ecology of the area, the endangered and threatened species, but also the business and tourism community, which rely on visitors to these beaches to make their money.

MARTIN: Right.

ROTT: This is sticky, sticky oil that takes a long time to clean, and there are concerns that some of these beaches could be closed for months.

MARTIN: So California, as you know, has been more aggressive than most states in trying to limit offshore oil and gas drilling.

ROTT: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think anything changes after this spill?

ROTT: You know, it's unclear. You know, no new offshore drilling has happened in California since 1984, but a handful of aging oil platforms, including the one linked to this spill, are still operating. And a lot of that infrastructure is aging. There have been attempts to ban all new oil and gas drilling off the West Coast. California Senator Dianne Feinstein has been working to include that in the administration's bigger climate packages, but we all know how much luck they've had getting that legislation through Congress. And, you know, while California's Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to wean the state off fossil fuels and reiterated that near the spill yesterday, there have been complaints from climate groups that he's not moving fast enough.

MARTIN: NPR environment correspondent Nathan Rott. Nate, thanks. We appreciate it.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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