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City, county prepare for the worst when it comes to oil spills

Workers help off-load a BP oil tanker at the Port of Long Beach. COURTESY OF THE PORT OF LONG BEACH

At a glance

The danger: With so much oil moving in and out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the risk of a spill is comparatively high.

The track record: Minor incidents excluded, a major spill hasn't happened off the coast of Southern California since the 1990s.

The response plan: Cleanup corporations have contracts already lined up and terminal operators and government officials have detailed plans for how, exactly, to handle a spill of any size.

Major offshore spills

1989: The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska and spilled about 257,000 barrels of oil.

1990: The American Trader gouged itself on its own anchor off the coast of Orange County and spilled 400,000 gallons of oil.

1991: The Omi Dynachem dragged its anchor across an underwater pipeline off the coast of Malibu and spilled 660 barrels of oil.

2007: The Cosco Busan ran into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in a heavy fog and spilled 53,569 gallons of bunker fuel.

If oil spills off the Long Beach and Los Angeles County coast, officials and cleanup corporations are ready.

That’s a good thing because, according to environmental nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper, the risk of a spill is higher here than along many undeveloped parts of the California coast. The area has dense oil development and infrastructure, especially around the ports complex.

Oil barges constantly are going in and out of the Port of Long Beach. Berth 121 is the only supertanker berth on the West Coast. At least 50 million gallons of oil arrive by ship somewhere in the county every day, according to Los Angeles Waterkeeper, which released a report in April on the status of spill prevention and response in Los Angeles County.

“Along all of these sensitive habitats, we have tanker ships constantly moving around and cargo ships constantly moving around,” said Brian Meux, the marine programs manager for Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

A major spill hasn’t happened off the coast of Southern California for decades. The most recent one was in 1991 off the coast of El Segundo after Chevron had a spill at its marine terminal.

Normally, oil is off-loaded from tankers and pumped under the ocean to shore at the terminal. But that spill happened when the tanker Omi Dynachem ripped open an undersea oil pipeline with its anchor, causing less than 200 barrels of oil, according to Chevron, to spill into the ocean and eventually wash up on Malibu and Topanga beaches.

A year before that, the American Trader tanker gouged itself on its anchor off the Orange County coast and spilled more than 400,000 gallons onto about 14 miles of beaches.

More recently, in 2007, the Cosco Busan spilled 53,569 gallons of bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay when it collided with the Bay Bridge in heavy fog.

Minor spills happen closer to Long Beach all the time and are routinely cleaned up, according to officials. For instance, a German cargo ship was fined $1.25 million in April for entering the harbor with an oil leak.

“We have a much higher risk of getting a spill in and around our waters than other areas of the country,” Meux said.

Detailed plans perfected over the years dictate exactly who is in charge if a spill happens, how the spill is combated and who handles insurance costs.

Each facility or vessel that takes on oil, whether for fuel or as cargo, has to have a response plan detailing a response for what the worst-case discharge of oil in the water would be, whether that’s 10 or 10,000 barrels.

That plan has to fit in with an area contingency plan put together bygovernment officials.

Vessel and facility operators are regularly tested on their plans to make sure they’re airtight. Resources have to be lined up and cleanup contractors already decided.

“This isn’t a go-looking-for-somebody-if-some-thing-happens,” said Alexia Retallack, spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “You already have them on the line, dialed in.”

Priorities – such as which ecologically sensitive sites to protect first and how to go about cordoning them off – are set ahead of time to make response times shorter.

“We use those so that when we go out there we’re not debating it. It’s already discussed,” Retallack said.

Responsibilities that government officials can’t handle are pre-delegated. For instance, volunteers in a UC Davis-managed program are trained to rehabilitate birds and animals affected by a spill.

Over the years, vessel and terminal operators have taken small steps to decrease the likelihood of a spill. After the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, federal regulators required tankers to have two hulls instead of one so a puncture of the outer hull wouldn’t result in a gusher of oil in the ocean.

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