HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – The company that owns a massive cargo ship that had drawn scrutiny in the offshore pipeline rupture that fouled miles of beaches and sensitive wetlands says its ship was not involved in the environmental calamity and has been cleared by investigators for any involvement.
Authorities say a ship’s anchor may have dragged and ripped the pipeline, which spewed up to 144,000 gallons of oil last week into the Pacific Ocean about 5 miles from shore.
The Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet long, was anchored a few miles out at sea last week while awaiting access to one of the area’s crowded ports.
The ship, owned by Hapag-Lloyd, later sailed to Oakland, California, where the Coast Guard boarded it Wednesday. Data from the navigation service MarineTraffic shows the Rotterdam Express may have made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it over the pipeline, The Associated Press reported.
Hapag-Lloyd spokesman Nils Haupt denied in an email to USA TODAY that the ship and its crew did anything wrong. He said the ship arrived in the area on Sept. 21.
“The anchor was dropped exactly as requested and confirmed” by port officials, Haupt said. “It did not move until Oct. 3, then it left (for) Oakland. It was basically 12 days on a standstill on the very same position.”
Haupt said the ship did not pass over the pipeline and no oil was spotted around the ship. Hapag-Lloyd is fully cooperating with authorities, he said.
Coast Guard investigators boarded the massive German-flagged container ship Rotterdam Express to determine if it was involved in the spill. The Rotterdam was the ship anchored closest to the pipeline last week.
Hapag-Lloyd confirmed Thursday that investigators boarded the ship while it was docked at the Port of Oakland in San Francisco Bay. The Coast Guard interviewed the captain and crew and was provided access to the logbook showing the ship’s locations, according to Nils Haupt, a spokesman at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters in Hamburg, Germany.
Afterward, the Coast Guard called the company to say the Rotterdam no longer was under scrutiny for the spill, Haupt said. The ship was cleared to depart Oakland was headed to Mexico.
The investigation continues as authorities clean up the oil. The Unified Command, led by the Coast Guard, said more than 400 crewmembers were in cleanup operations. Up to 1,500 people were expected to be sent by the end of the week, the command said in a statement.
The Unified Command released the first images of the pipeline and the 13-inch crack investigators believe could be the source of the leak. Video showing the pipeline shows a fairly thin, hairline crack, which some experts say might help explain how so much oil leaked into waters without being immediately discovered and stopped.
Amplify Energy Corp. CEO Martyn Willsher, the head of the parent company who owns the pipeline and oil faculties, has insisted the company wasn’t aware of the oil spill or issues with the pipeline until a sheen on the water was detected at 8:09 a.m. Saturday, even though federal regulators say the company’s own systems signaled “a possible failure” in the pipeline when a “low-pressure alarm” went off at 2:30 a.m.
The first emergency call came in Friday at 6:13 p.m., after a ship had noticed a sheen in the water, according to a federal report on the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spill report website. Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration separately notified the federal response center twice that night of a possible oil spill less than 5 miles off Huntington Beach, according to updates on the California emergency services website.
The Coast Guard has said it did not investigate the initial reports of the oil spill for nearly 12 hours because it didn’t have enough corroborating evidence and was hindered by darkness and a lack of technology.
“My experience suggests this would be a darned hard leak to remotely determine quickly,” Kuprewicz said. “An opening of this type, on a 17-mile-long (27-kilometer) underwater pipe is very hard to spot by remote indications. These crack-type releases are lower rate and can go for quite a while.”
When pipes experience a catastrophic failure the breach typically is much bigger, what’s referred to in the industry as a “fish mouth” rupture because it gapes wide like the mouth of a fish, he said.
The type of crack seen in the Coast Guard video is big enough to allow some oil to escape to potentially trigger the low pressure alarm, Kuprewicz said. But because the pipeline was operating under relatively low pressure, the control room operator may have simply dismissed the alarm because the pressure was not very high to begin, he said.
Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of Houston, said the pipeline might have leaked for days before being discovered.
“If you have a massive crack or massive hole, you get a huge pressure drop and therefore you know you have a massive leak,” he said. “When you have a hairline crack like that, perhaps this could have been going on for two, three, four days.”
The fact that the San Pedro Bay line was still encased in concrete in the video is another indication that oil was likely leaking at a low rate. A major breach on a highly pressurized line would blow the concrete off, Kuprewicz said.
Because the line is encased in concrete — a means of keeping it weighted down on the sea floor — the Coast Guard video doesn’t reveal the condition of the half-inch-thick steel pipe underneath.
Once federal safety investigators cut out the damaged section of pipe and remove it, they will be able to conduct a closer examination, looking for signs of corrosion, metal fatigue or other anomalies that would have made it more susceptible to failure. That examination should also reveal if the crack grew larger over time, Kuprewicz said.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley urged residents to join the cleanup.
“Calling on thousands of volunteers to assist with clean up efforts, once conditions are deemed safe,” Foley tweeted. “Please sign up to volunteer so we can get our beaches cleaned up.”
Foley said volunteers will receive four hours of training to protect their health and to ensure hazardous materials are disposed of properly.
More than 2 miles of containment boom had been deployed as of Wednesday, and 5,544 gallons of crude oil had been recovered, the Coast Guard said. The Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center said that so far 19 birds had been recovered alive and at least five others had died.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Hayes reported from Los Angeles.