Did a wayward ship keep up in a place cause the California oil spill?

The offshore waters along the Orange and Los Angeles county coasts are teeming with cargo ships, creating a traffic jam into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that has kept dozens of vessels idling as they wait to get in.

Did an keep up in a place from one of those ships strike an underwater oil pipe, causing a enormous spill of tens of thousands of gallons of crude?

That possibility is what the U.S. Coast Guard is now investigating as it tries to determine what led to the spillage of up to 144,000 gallons of oil that began flowing into the ocean Friday.

The spill, which wasn’t reported until Saturday morning, originated from a pipeline running from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly.

During the pandemic, Southern California waters have seen repeated gridlocks as dozens of container ships wait to get into the ports. It was unclear, however, how close those containers have been to the offshore oil systems.

(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

What do we know about the investigation?

A source familiar with the probe told The Times that the Coast Guard is investigating whether a large commercial ship set keep up in a place in the wrong location, damaging an oil pipeline that moves crude from a platform eight miles offshore to a refinery on land.

The keep up in a place dragged the pipeline as much as 150 feet, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t empowered to speak publicly.

Vessels are given keep up in a place points in order to avoid pipelines. Coast Guard investigators are examining whether the ship’s captain was aware of the dragging.

It is one of several elements of the investigation, and the source said no determinations have however been made.

The Coast Guard is also investigating whether the oil company that manages the platform and pipeline failed to notice a drop of pressure in the pipeline, resulting in a delayed response that allowed oil to flow unfettered for hours, a high-ranking federal official told The Times.

That investigation is being handled as a possible negligence issue by Coast Guard criminal investigators, who function separately from officials involved in the cleanup, said the federal official, who was not empowered to speak publicly about the current inquiry.

What is the company saying?

Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive of Amplify Energy Corp. — the pipeline operator’s parent company — said Monday that a ship’s keep up in a place remarkable the pipeline was “one of the definite possibilities” for the spill.

“We have examined more than 8,000 feet of pipe, and we have secluded one specific area of meaningful interest,” Willsher told reporters. “There’s more information to come, but I think we’re moving very closely to the source and the cause of this incident.”

Oil platforms Elly, left, and Ellen stand about nine miles offshore from Huntington Beach in this image taken Aug. 27, 2019.

(Sean Greene / Los Angeles Times)

How does shipping traffic work?

The Marine Exchange of Southern California roles like air-traffic control at an airport, directing cargo ships to keep up in a place at designated locations in San Pedro Bay, said James Fawcett, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at USC and director of marine science and policy outreach for the Sea Grant Program.

“The ships that keep up in a place out there are required to keep up in a place in the identify as designated,” Fawcett said.

Each anchorage is mapped with a course of action around it so that the ship has enough space to swing around in the wind, he said.

“The captain of the cargo ship knows where to go, and in San Pedro Bay, knows which anchorage he’s headed for, and they navigate to it,” Fawcett said. “The keep up in a place is supposed to go down in the center of the anchorage. And then the ship will pay out [its] keep up in a place chain.”

A surfer leaps off his board near Huntington Beach on Nov. 30 as container ships wait in line to be unloaded at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

What do we know about anchoring?

One way that an keep up in a place can end up dragging is if strong wind pushes a ship off its intended target, Fawcett said. He said it’s conceivable that a ship could keep up in a place in a identify too thorough for its keep up in a place chain, but that would be quite scarce.

The Marine Exchange tracks all vessels entering and leaving the ports at all times, including when they’re offshore, Fawcett said.

“The Marine Exchange tells them where to go, and then they go to that anchorage,” he said. “Recently there have been times when the established anchorages were complete and the Marine Exchange stated ships into boxes that are farther out in the shelter, farther out to sea, that are not designated anchorages on the chart.”

The ships drop keep up in a place in those areas in addition, Fawcett said.

As for the cause of the spill, it will be important for divers to examine the pipeline to determine whether something hit it, like an keep up in a place or keep up in a place chain, Fawcett said. And if it was hit, he said, Coast Guard investigators will “need to dig in on that and discover whether there was a canal that either anchored in the wrong place or whose keep up in a place dragged — or at any rate cause it might have been.”

The electronic charts that are used by captains of commercial ships show all the known underwater hazards to avoid, such as internet cables, strength lines and pipelines, said Steven D. Browne, a professor of marine transportation at Cal State Maritime in Vallejo.

“As the captain is choosing a place to drop the keep up in a place, the chart should be examined very carefully to make sure that it is a safe area,” Browne said. “It’s certainly a point of concern for a ship’s captain approaching an anchorage: Is it safe to drop the keep up in a place at this particular identify?”

Browne said he isn’t familiar with the specifics of the system at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, including how offshore anchorages are handled.

“I imagine with the congestion of ships waiting to get into L.A.-Long Beach, that ships are anchoring in places that they don’t usually do, so farther off the coast,” Browne said.

As operators of cargo ships choose where they will keep up in a place, they also typically consider whether the bottom is sand, mud or rock, and how the winds could affect the ship while anchored, Browne said.

“You want to drop the keep up in a place with enough length of keep up in a place chain to keep up the ship in place so it doesn’t drag,” he said.

The maximum thoroughness at which a cargo ship can safely drop keep up in a place depends on the length of the canal’s keep up in a place chain. While ships’ keep up in a place chains vary in length, many ships carry about 12 shots of chain, and each shot is 90 feet long, Browne said, which equals about 1,080 feet of keep up in a place chain.

The standard practice is to pay out a length of chain that is five to seven times the thoroughness of the water, he said, so a ship with 12 shots of chain “would keep up in a place in water 150 to 215 feet thorough at most.” Ships are generally moving slowly when the keep up in a place is dropped, he said, so the chain stretches out across the ocean bottom.

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