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Coast Guard investigators board cargo ship in probe of whether its anchor caused oil spill


Coast Guard investigators boarded the cargo ship Rotterdam Express as they probe what caused the rupture of an offshore oil pipeline that sent 144,000 gallons of crude washing up on Southern California beaches.

The visit to the Hapaq-Lloyd container ship came as investigators try to determine whether an anchor snagged, dragged and bent the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles.

The Rotterdam Express appeared to make a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to where the break in the pipeline happened, according to data collected by the marine navigation service MarineTraffic.  

The Rotterdam Express is being investigated amid a probe into whether a cargo ship anchor caused California’s oil spill. It was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest designated parking spot for ships to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach

GPS data showed unusual movements for the Rotterdam Express (pictured) at the time when the spill is believed to have started, but the its owner, Hapaq-Lloyd said the ship stayed in place while anchored

GPS data showed unusual movements for the Rotterdam Express (pictured) at the time when the spill is believed to have started, but the its owner, Hapaq-Lloyd said the ship stayed in place while anchored 

The German-flagged ship is nearly 1,000 feet long, and was anchored amid 61 cargo ships waiting to enter the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports on Friday

The German-flagged ship is nearly 1,000 feet long, and was anchored amid 61 cargo ships waiting to enter the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports on Friday

But in an email Thursday, MarineTraffic spokesperson Fotini Tseroni said the movements indicated for the Rotterdam Express apparently were incorrect, and may have resulted from errors involving the ship’s GPS system. 

The company said it was removing the jumps in position to show the ship stayed within its anchorage.

The Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet long, was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest designated parking spot for ships to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach.

It was anchored amid 61 cargo ships waiting to enter the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports on Friday, when the spill is believed to have started, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. 

The waters have seen record-breaking number of cargo vessels waiting to enter the ports in recent months as a supply chain crunch snarls maritime traffic.   

An aerial photo shot Sunday shows oil begin to pool on the sandy shores of the Santa Ana River, close to Newport Beach in California

An aerial photo shot Sunday shows oil begin to pool on the sandy shores of the Santa Ana River, close to Newport Beach in California 

Crews work to clean the shores of Los Angeles from an oil spill on Tuesday as container ships sit wait in the background to dock at the city's port.

Crews work to clean the shores of Los Angeles from an oil spill on Tuesday as container ships sit wait in the background to dock at the city’s port.

Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, confirmed Thursday that investigators boarded the ship Wednesday while it was docked at the Port of Oakland in San Francisco Bay. The company has said the ship played no role in the oil spill.

‘We are fully cooperating with the authorities at this moment,’ said Nils Haupt, a spokesman at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. He said the ship remained in place while anchored.

‘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.’

A U.S. official told the Associated Press that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned that the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in its 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.

Cleanup workers continued to comb the beaches of Orange County Tuesday where an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline has contaminated the area

Cleanup workers continued to comb the beaches of Orange County Tuesday where an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline has contaminated the area 

Officials reported that up to 144,000 gallons of oil had spilled into the ocean after the leak, which is believed to have taken place on Friday

Officials reported that up to 144,000 gallons of oil had spilled into the ocean after the leak, which is believed to have taken place on Friday 

The leak stemmed from a 17.5 mile pipeline spanning from Amplify's Elly oil rig seven miles off the coast of Long Beach, to a pump station operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston-based Amplify, and has spread to a slew of beaches and coastal areas across California's Orange County

The leak stemmed from a 17.5 mile pipeline spanning from Amplify’s Elly oil rig seven miles off the coast of Long Beach, to a pump station operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston-based Amplify, and has spread to a slew of beaches and coastal areas across California’s Orange County

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

Martyn Willsher, (pictured on Monday)  CEO of Amplify Energy the company which maintains the pipeline said that it had 'essentially been pulled like a bow string,' after investigators reported a section of it had move about 150 feet laterally

Martyn Willsher, (pictured on Monday)  CEO of Amplify Energy the company which maintains the pipeline said that it had ‘essentially been pulled like a bow string,’ after investigators reported a section of it had move about 150 feet laterally

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 MarineTraffic data showed the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the Port of Long Beach early on September 22 and dropped anchor about 2,000 feet from the pipeline. It then showed the ship’s position changing dramatically on three occasions in the following days, making it appear the ship had drifted over the pipeline.

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, said Nikolas Xiros, a professor of marine engineering at the University of New Orleans. He said it would be very unusual for a vessel’s reported position to be off by thousands of feet.

Oil build-up at the barriers put in place by clean-up crews looking to quell the spread of more than 13 square miles of slick off the coast of Southern California

Oil build-up at the barriers put in place by clean-up crews looking to quell the spread of more than 13 square miles of slick off the coast of Southern California

An aerial photo shows floating barriers - known as booms - set up by clean-up crews after the spill to try to stop further incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh on the Orange County coast

An aerial photo shows floating barriers – known as booms – set up by clean-up crews after the spill to try to stop further incursion into the Wetlands Talbert Marsh on the Orange County coast

‘GPS errors, even though they can happen, they scarcely if ever are of such magnitude, even when the carrier is moving,’ said Xiros, who noted that the Rotterdam Express was at anchor when the erroneous readings apparently occurred. ‘So, even though anything is possible, it is highly unlikely to observe such anomalies repeatedly on a marine navigation GPS receiver when the vessel is anchored close to shore and on a clear day.’

AP sent an email Wednesday 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.

The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline were made the evening of Friday, October 1. 

The Coast Guard was mobilized over the weekend and struggled to contain the spread of the 13-square-mile oil slick on Sunday

The Coast Guard was mobilized over the weekend and struggled to contain the spread of the 13-square-mile oil slick on Sunday

Beaches in Orange County could remain closed for month as a result of the spillage, after the oil spread to areas along the coast

Beaches in Orange County could remain closed for month as a result of the spillage, after the oil spread to areas along the coast

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 on Tuesday divers determined a 4,000-foot section of the pipeline was dislodged 105 feet, bent back like the string on a bow. 

Oil escaped through a slender crack.

The many environmental and safety violations of Beta Offshore – the Long Beach-based oil outfit belonging to Amplify Energy

 -The company that operates the pipeline responsible for one of California’s largest oil spills has been cited 72 times for safety and environmental violations that were severe enough that drilling had to be curtailed or stopped to fix the problem, regulatory records show

-In all, Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry 

-The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three separate incidents 

-Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity, and a separate incident when crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed

 -Further details of the exact citations were not available on the bureau’s website

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.

On Monday night, state and federal officials updated that figure to 144,000 gallons. 

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. Ships at sea also use AIS to avoid collisions with one another at night or during conditions with low visibility.

According to MarineTraffic data, the Rotterdam Express steamed out of San Francisco Bay on Thursday morning. 

According to a ship schedule posted in the Hapag-Lloyd website, it had been set to make port calls later this week in Seattle and Vancouver. 

Instead, the ship turned south, bound for Manzanillo, Mexico. 

On Tuesday it was revealed that one of Amplify’s offshoots, Long Beach-based Beta Offshore, has been cited 72 times for safety and environmental violations since its inception, with the infractions being so severe that drilling operations have had to be ceased in order to address them, regulatory records revealed.

In all, Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. 

However, the online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.

Some of those details have emerged in Associated Press reporting. 

The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity, and a separate incident when crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.   

Willsher announced Sunday that the leak has since been stopped, but not before his company’s share price took a drastic hit. 

As of Monday, Amplify shares plummeted by more than 50 per cent, from $5.75 per share to $2.85 a share as stock markets opened, amid fury over the environmental catastrophe.

News of the disaster sent Amplify's stock price plummeting over the past week, and it has yet to recover

News of the disaster sent Amplify’s stock price plummeting over the past week, and it has yet to recover 

The Coast Guard has recovered 3,150 gallons of oil from the water off the Orange County coast, a small dent in the overall amount of the now estimated 144,000 gallons of the contaminant

The Coast Guard has recovered 3,150 gallons of oil from the water off the Orange County coast, a small dent in the overall amount of the now estimated 144,000 gallons of the contaminant

An estuary in Huntington Beach is pictured caked in oil Monday morning, with a clean-up worker seen reflected in the water

An estuary in Huntington Beach is pictured caked in oil Monday morning, with a clean-up worker seen reflected in the water

Authorities said the oil came from Platform Elly, pictured here - a pipeline operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston's Amplify Energy

Authorities said the oil came from Platform Elly, pictured here – a pipeline operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy

Its share price had climbed to $3.09 by midday Wednesday, but that was still down 38.81 percent on Friday’s close. 

Willsher, who oversees the operations of Houston-based oil company Amplify Energy Corp., said Sunday that his company’s underwater pipeline that sprung the leak had been ‘suctioned at both ends’ sometime over the weekend. 

That means no more oil would spill out into the already contaminated Pacific and the shores of a 13 mile stretch of coastline encompassing Huntington Beach as well as Newport Beach. 

The oil it did leak – equivalent to 3,000 barrels – represented the entire capacity of the pipeline, which is attached to an oil processing platform called Elly.  

Investors are no doubt spooked by the prospect of lawsuits, with Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr vowing to hold the oil firm ‘accountable.’ 

The spillage – believed to have begun on Friday – canceled the second day of the popular Pacific Air Show.

It attracted more than one million visitors on Saturday, with local businesses who had prepared for big crowds also likely to make claims for compensation. 

The leak – which likely sprung late Friday night – left a slew of beaches in the Orange County area badly contaminated, with locals banned from taking to the waters. 



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