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An oil spill has hit sensitive marshland along the coast of Southern California


Over the weekend, an estimated 130,000 gallons of oil spilled from a pipeline into the waters off Southern California. Some of what spilled is washing ashore in Huntington Beach and elsewhere. Now state agencies and local conservation groups are scrambling to get things under control. Environmentalists worry there could be long-lasting damage.

From member station KPCC, science reporter Jacob Margolis joins us from Los Angeles. Jacob, what more can you tell us about what happened over the weekend?

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Yeah. On Saturday, the Coast Guard received a report of an oil sheen off the coast of the Huntington Beach area here in Southern California. There are about three oil rigs some 9 miles off the coast. They're joined together, but one has a line that actually runs from it inland all the way to a refinery where the heavy crude oil can be processed. And somewhere along that journey from that one rig to the coast, there was a sizable leak, and some 130,000 gallons of oil are estimated to have entered the waters. And the leak is being investigated at this moment by Amplify Energy, which owns the platforms. And according to them, the pipeline is no longer leaking.

SHAPIRO: Can you describe some of the ecologically sensitive areas where this oil is coming ashore?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. The oil reached an area known as the Huntington Beach Wetlands, where there are a number of marshes, including the Talbert Marsh, which was the hardest hit. Now, marshes are really important. Not only do they act like sponges and sequester carbon, they also help prevent erosion and flooding. They also provide really important homes for wildlife along coasts, including for fish and migratory birds. California's lost some 90% of its marshes over the last century, and the wetlands being affected by the spill have been carefully restored since the 1980s. Now there's oil all over them.

SHAPIRO: Is there more that could have been done to protect them?

MARGOLIS: Well, the head of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy said he actually thought the reaction was quite swift - that there were boats out with booms to collect the oil within hours, that things could have been far worse for the marshes. That said, this event really underscores what environmentalists have been saying for ages, especially when it comes to old oil platforms - that no matter how fast you move, the potential for damage is great.

SHAPIRO: So now that these wetlands are, as you say, soaked in oil, what's being done to deal with the damage?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. I mean, first off, officials closed the inlet that allows saltwater into the marsh to prevent more oil from coming in. And now they're beginning the process of cleaning up. They'll literally be scrubbing rocks with biodegradable solvents. Still, this oil is going to be a concern for everything from microscopic animals all the way up to birds and larger sea life. So far, they've found four birds that were covered in oil. One, which was a pelican, had to be euthanized. The rest are being cleaned. And when it comes the impact on bigger animals like sea lions, it's a bit more difficult to track the negative impacts. They could suffer eye damage. They can end up with internal effects from consuming toxic oil. Officials said they could use deterrent techniques to try to keep those larger sea animals out of the area. That said, scientists and officials will be working to determine the scale of the damage for weeks, months, if not years to come. And a 10-year timeline for recovery of marshes after oil spills, it's not unheard of.

SHAPIRO: Are there concerns this could have an impact on people living in the area?

MARGOLIS: Well, some beaches have been closed. Some of the beaches smell like oil. It's a pretty intense smell. And as a longtime surfer, I've seen people decide to swim in some pretty awful water. But in short, if they're exposed, they can expect potential skin, eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea, potentially vomiting. In Orange County, health officials have recommended that anyone who's come in contact with the oil to seek medical attention. But, you know, people are still showing up to see what's going on. Still, it's highly advised that they avoid the area as crews clean up the oil.

SHAPIRO: That's Jacob Margolis of member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Thank you.

MARGOLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Margolis