NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Just after noon on Saturday, Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery came across an oil slick on his way back from Catalina Island.
“I had no idea how big it was that time,” he said.
Avery was on his boat, traveling to Huntington Beach when he noticed the spill. But by the time he arrived on shore, there was no sign of it.
The spill, the Coast Guard believes, began about three hours earlier and has pumped at least 126,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean.
When Avery crossed the slick, it was hard to miss. The water was glossy and marked with dark, thick patches of black oil. It was different from the diesel fuel that sometimes spills from boats. But it wasn't unfamiliar. Avery had seen that kind of oil from naturally occurring sources near Santa Barbara.
Now, Newport Beach and other coastal towns are confronted with a question: Shut down the beaches or stay open. Huntington Beach has already decided to close, but Newport Beach is waiting.
Avery was with other city officials at the crack of dawn Sunday to survey the situation. For now, they’re staying open.
“The oil is not traveling fast, so we can watch it, and if it’s going to land on the beaches, we can react,” Avery said.
Orange County and the U.S. Coast Guard are leading the cleanup effort and, as Avery explained, city decisions will be made in cooperation with those agencies.
Avery, an experienced boater, said the current off the Newport Beach pier changes direction and sweeps north toward Huntington Beach carrying oil along with it. That city has been patrolling its coast with a helicopter borrowed from the police department.
The oil spill represents a significant threat to wildlife. The Wetlands and Wildlife Center of Orange County keeps rows of Dawn dish soap available in a designated area equipped with troughs to thoroughly rinse contaminated animals.
Newport Beach itself has already had to contend with an invasive species of kelp this year. Now it’s this oil spill, which the Coast Guard said originated five miles offshore from an oil rig operated by Beta Offshore.
Huntington Beach will close its beaches likely for weeks, and Mayor Kim Carr said the shutdown could be even longer. But Newport Beach will keep open and encourage visitors to stay out of the water.
Avery noted that the public beaches should be available until visitors' health and safety are at risk.
“We’re trying not to produce the sky is falling narratives,” he said. “No question it’s a serious situation, but I believe it will not be too bad.”