Search Now on to Find Ship That Snagged California Pipeline, Leading to Oil Spill

While it took only hours for oil to leech into the waters of California's Huntington Beach, finding the ship responsible for rupturing the oil pipeline will take much longer as federal and state agencies investigate the recent oil leak.

The leak off the coast of Orange County south was reported October 1 and confirmed the next morning as crude oil washed onto the sands of Hunting Beach and spread south. The coastline was closed for more than a week, creating economic turmoil for local businesses.

Investigators are determining the cause of the rupture, how quickly pipeline operators reacted and whether criminal charges should be filed.

Jason Neubauer, a Coast Guard captain, said investigators are searching for which of thousands of ships could have ripped open the pipeline with its anchor in the past year.

"We are not ruling out anybody at this time," Neubauer said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Huntington Beach Cleanup
Cleanup workers search for contaminated sand and seaweed on a mostly empty Huntington Beach about one week after an oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 9 in Huntington Beach, California. The heavy crude oil spill affected close to 25 miles of coastline in Orange County. Huntington Beach is open but the public is not allowed to enter the water. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Coast Guard has estimated between about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) and 132,000 gallons (495,889 liters) spilled.

It could take a long time for investigators to comb through marine tracking data to see which ships passed over and anchored near the Amplify Energy pipeline running from platform Elly to the Long Beach port.

Investigations by federal prosecutors, the Coast Guard and several other federal agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, could lead to criminal charges, civil penalties and new laws or regulations.

"Criminal charges—when they're warranted—you absolutely want to go after for all the reasons that you pursue criminal charges: accountability, deterrence, punishment," said attorney Rohan Virginkar, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. "But really in these environmental cases, it's about finding somebody who's going to pay for the cleanup."

Coast Guard investigators already have boarded two vessels and plan to track down others, many from overseas, Neubauer said. They will inspect anchors for damage and review all logs kept by the captain, deck officers and engineers, and the voyage data recorder—the equivalent of the so-called black box on airplanes. They will also interview crew.

Under some environmental laws, prosecutors only have to show negligence to win a conviction, Virginkar said. That could lead to a charge against a shipping company for anchoring outside an assigned anchorage or too close to a pipeline marked on nautical charts.

The accident occurred where huge cargo ships anchor waiting to unload at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex—the nation's largest.

Other investigators, including federal pipeline regulators, will focus on Amplify Energy, which owns the three offshore oil platforms and the pipeline.

They will review pipeline inspections for evidence of corrosion that might show it was being operated negligently and seek any information that records were falsified, which is what they found in the BP case, said attorney William Carter, a former federal environmental crimes prosecutor. A forensic analysis will be performed after the cracked pipe is retrieved from 100 feet (30 meters) of water.

The Amplify pipeline was required to have thorough inside and outside checks on alternating years. The most recent showed no issues requiring repairs, according to federal documents.

Prosecutors will also scrutinize control room data to see if there were pipeline pressure drops that would have indicated a possible leak and what was done to respond, Carter said.

The company could be prosecuted if it realized there was a leak and did not quickly call state and federal hotlines to alert the Coast Guard, fish and wildlife officials and multiple other agencies that respond to spills, Carter said.

Prosecution for an untimely response is fairly common in spills, he said.

"The elements necessary for that violation are: I knew there was a release, and I didn't immediately report it—regardless of the cause," Carter said. "I mean, it could have been lightning or an earthquake did it and you knew it, and you didn't report it in a timely fashion."

Plains All American Pipeline was convicted for that crime for a breach in a pipe on land that sent tens of thousands of gallons of crude pouring onto a Santa Barbara beach and into the ocean in 2015.

In the Amplify pipeline leak, federal regulators said a low-pressure alarm at 2:30 a.m. on October 2 alerted control room operators on platform Elly to a possible leak. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the line wasn't shut down until 6:01 a.m. and the Coast Guard wasn't notified until 9:07 a.m.

Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher has refused to answer questions about the reported pressure drop, including the fact that the first report to authorities made on behalf of the company listed the incident at 2:30 a.m. He has insisted the company didn't know of the spill until a company inspection boat saw the sheen at 8:09 a.m.

Carter said lawyers probably told Willsher not to discuss the timeline because he could incriminate himself.

If charged with failure to report the spill quickly, the company could also face charges for allowing oil to harm endangered species and other wildlife that might have been saved by a more prompt response.

Federal prosecutors have five years to bring felony charges. Carter said they would likely wait until they know the cost of the damage to demand restitution.

Federal penalties for failing to notify authorities can be $500,000 or it could be as much as double the total damage. State penalties could run up to $10 per gallon spilled that wasn't recovered.

Regardless of whether a ship is ultimately found to be the cause of the spill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires whoever spills the oil to pay for the cleanup, said attorney James Mercante, a maritime lawyer. Amplify, however, can later seek to recover its losses from other liable parties.

Mercante said the law was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska in 1989 to speed the cleanup without finger-pointing.

"The spirit and purpose is to get the oil cleaned up and then fight it out," Mercante said. "It will take years and years and years to be resolved."

So far, two proposed class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of a disc jockey who runs beachfront events in Huntington Beach and a surf school that operates in the city known as "Surf City USA."

Those cases will rely heavily on government investigations and will take years to play out.

CA Huntington Cleanup
Surfers and swimmers return to the Huntington Beach pier waves since the crude oil spill at the California beach October 11. The reopening of Huntington Beach, dubbed "Surf City USA," came far sooner than many expected after a putrid smell blanketed the coast and blobs of crude began washing ashore. Amy Taxin