What Was the Worst Oil Spill in U.S. History? California's Huntington Beach Hit by 'Major' Leak

A catastrophic oil spill in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast has left fish dead, birds covered in petroleum, and wetlands contaminated.

In a press conference hours after the spill was first reported on Saturday morning, Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr called the spill an "environmental catastrophe" and "potential ecological disaster."

The Huntington Beach are has borne the brunt, with an estimated 126,000 gallons of oil covering a 13-square mile area of the Pacific Ocean, Reuters reports.

The spill was caused by a breach connected to the Elly oil rig, operated by Beta Offshore, and stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier down to Newport Beach.

Oil spill
The effects of a 126,000 gallon oil spill on Oct 3 are felt on Newport Beach, California. How does this disaster compare to the worst in U.S. waters? Michael Heiman/Getty
Oil washed up on Huntington State Beach.
A person takes a photograph near oil washed up on Huntington State Beach after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

A cleaning operation is being conducted by several organizations spearheaded by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is also investigating how the breach occurred.

Many Google users are questioning if this disaster is the worst oil spill in U.S history, and if not, what is?

Thousands of oil spills occur in U.S waters each year, according to the regulator National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Most spills involve less than one barrel of oil.

The organization says that since the Santa Barbara Oil Spill in 1969 leaked 4.2 million gallons of crude oil into waters around California, there have been at least 44 oil spills that have leaked 420,000 gallons of oil, or 10,000 barrels, in U.S. waters.

Largest Oil Spills U.S Waters
A NOAA graphic showing the largest oil spills around the coast of the U.S. from 1969 to 2015. The largest of these spill is the Deepwater Horizon which released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA

Arguably the most famous oil spill in recent memory is the Deepwater Horizon disaster which occurred at the Macondo oil prospect in the Mississippi Canyon, off the coast of Louisiana, in April 2010.

Deepwater, the NOAA says, is the largest oil spill—in terms of most oil leaked into the surrounding environment—to occur off the coast of the U.S.

The spill occurred when a natural gas explosion ripped out a concrete seal and ignited killing 11 workers and injuring 17 at the BP-operated rig. The explosion cleared drilling mud which was being used to oppose the force of oil, which begun to flow unimpeded into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the height of the spill, U.S officials estimated that around 60,000 barrels of oil a day were spilling from Deepwater. In comparison, the Huntington Beach spill has thus far deposited an estimated 3,000 barrels into the Pacific.

The Deepwater spill was finally successfully capped on September 17, 2010, but the U.S estimated that by July of that year almost 5 million barrels worth of oil had already leaked into the Gulf.

The NOAA says that over the 87-day leak 134 million gallons of oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster into U.S. waters covering almost 3000 cubic miles across 500 miles of coastline.

The impact of the Deepwater spill on the environment around the Gulf of Mexico was tremendous with clean-up efforts continuing until at least April 2014, four years after the well blowout.

A 2020 paper published in Nature found that whilst some regions of the Gulf of Mexico had recovered from the disaster, fish in the region continued to show evidence of contamination.

deepwater horizon
Eleven workers died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, with at least 17 more requiring medical treatment. U.S. Coast Guard/Getty

While the Exxon Valdez may spring to mind as one of the worst spills in U.S. history, the 1979 blowout of the Exploratory well IXTOC 1 in Mexico's Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico is the second-largest spill in U.S. waters.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute estimates this disaster, which took nine months to seal and was leaking 30, 000 barrels a day, leaked 126 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

In 1989 the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons, according to NOAA, meaning that both the Deepwater Horizon spill and the Exploratory well IXTOC 1 spill were both larger by around 13 and 11 times respectively.

It remains to be seen if the Huntington Beach spill will rank amongst the largest, or worst, spills in U.S. waters, but its environmental effects are deeply concerning to officials in its early days.

"In the coming days and weeks, we challenge the responsible parties to do everything possible to rectify this environmental catastrophe," Carr added during her press conference. "Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil."

Oil floating in water near Huntington Beach.
Oil floats in the water of the Talbert Marshlands following an oil leak near Newport Beach, California, on October 3, 2021. DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images