Probe Deepens Into Whether Cargo Ship Caused California Oil Spill; Company Denies Any Role

Investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard have deepened their probe into whether a massive cargo ship played a role in the rupturing of a pipeline that caused oil to leak into the ocean and wash up on beaches in Southern California, the Associated Press reported. The cargo ship, named the Rotterdam Express, was anchored closest to where the pipeline ruptured and, according to data from a marine navigation service, appeared to have made a string of unusual movements leading up to the break.

A spokesman for cargo ship company Hapag-Lloyd, said that they were "fully cooperating with authorities" in the investigation, but the company also denied any role in the spill. Hapag-Lloyd confirmed that investigators boarded the Rotterdam Express Wednesday as they sought to learn whether one of the ship's anchors snagged on and bent the pipeline, owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy.

The AP reviewed weeks of data from MarineTraffic, which monitors radio signals that designate the locations of ships and boats. The data showed that the Rotterdam Express, after anchoring, may have drifted away from its designated spot and over the pipeline about 2,000 feet away over a few days, the AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Cargo Ship Investigated After Oil Spill
The Rotterdam Express, a massive cargo ship, reportedly made a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to a Southern California oil pipeline that ruptured and sent crude oil washing up on beaches, according to data collected by a marine navigation service. The Rotterdam Express is seen at the Port of Oakland, Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Oakland, California. Josh Edelson/AP Photo

MarineTraffic spokesman Fotini Tseroni said in an email early Thursday that the questionable movements indicated for the Rotterdam Express on its website may have resulted from errors involving the ship's GPS system, rather than showing the ship's actual position. The company said it was removing the jumps in position to show that the ship stayed within its anchorage.

A U.S. official told the AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in the early stages.

The investigators are seeking to collect tracking and navigational information from the vessel that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also seeking preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.

The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesperson, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express Wednesday but said the agency is analyzing electric charting systems from its vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the spill area.

The ship's location data, which works through a global network called the Automatic Identification System, is supposed to be accurate and reliable within a few feet.

The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline was made the evening of Friday, October 1. Amplify said the pipeline was shut down early Saturday morning but has not said how long it believes oil flowed from it.

Amplify's CEO Martyn Willsher said Tuesday divers determined a 4,000-feet (1,219-meter) section of the pipeline was dislodged 105 feet (32 meters), bent back like the string on a bow. Oil escaped through a slender crack.

The amount is unclear. Amplify has said publicly that no more than 126,000 gallons leaked but told federal investigators it may be only 29,400 gallons.

AP first contacted Hapag-Lloyd on Tuesday evening, seeking an explanation for the ship's movements on September 22 and 23.

On Wednesday, Nils denied that the ship ever moved off anchor from spot SF-3 during that period. He said the transponder data displayed by MarineTraffic is erroneous.

"We have proof by the logbook, which is updated hourly, that the vessel did not move," Haupt said. "MarineTraffic, in this case, is wrong and the position is indeed incorrect."

AP sent an email Wednesday morning to the Unified Command Joint Information Center for state and federal agencies responding to the oil spill, seeking comment about the movements made by the Rotterdam Express prior to the spill. Senior Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said the command was unable to discuss matters involving an ongoing investigation.

If a ship's anchor were to become entangled with an underwater obstacle such as a communications cable or petroleum pipeline, the operator is required by federal law to notify the Coast Guard. The locations and movements of ships are also regularly monitored by both the AIS system and radar, according to the Coast Guard.

According to MarineTraffic data, the ship left Long Beach on Monday for Oakland. It was still moored there Thursday morning, despite being scheduled to depart Wednesday night.

Workers Clean Contaminated Beach
Some of the crude oil that spilled from a pipeline into the waters off Southern California has been breaking up naturally in ocean currents, a Coast Guard official said Wednesday as authorities sought to determine the scope of the damage. A worker in protective suit cleans the contaminated beach after an oil spill in Newport Beach, California, on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo