SAN PEDRO — Kurt Mueller knew something was wrong on the waters off Cabrillo Beach last Saturday when a man who had rented a Jet Ski sped back to shore.
"When this Jet Ski came back in it was covered with oil," recalled Mueller, a lobster fisherman who also rents boats and self-propelled skis at the beach.
"And the guy, you should have seen him," Mueller said, chuckling. "He was just coated with the stuff."
Mueller, 40, was among a small gathering of spectators at Cabrillo earlier this week as workers went about the messy chore of mopping up crude oil that blanketed the beach's sand, rocks and jetties after a spill at the Mobil Oil Corp. dock on Terminal Island, about 1 1/2 miles away.
Mobil said the spill occurred when a worker inadvertently left open a two-inch-wide drain valve at the oil storage facility Saturday sometime after midnight on Saturday. The open valve went unnoticed until sometime after daybreak, leaking 450 barrels, or 18,900 gallons, of crude oil into the main channel of Los Angeles Harbor, the company said. The tide and a strong current pushed it southward and onto Cabrillo Beach and the port's main breakwater.
Mobil had estimated that cleanup operations would be completed this week, but later an official said it would probably continue into next week. It will take longer than that to determine if any marine life was destroyed.
"People call in and say, 'Hey, we got some oil over here,' and we send a crew over," said Jack Murnane, superintendent of the Mobil terminal, as he stood on Cabrillo Beach overseeing cleanup operations.
Murnane and cleanup crews were joined by a handful of spectators, federal and state officials, and the media. Television crews drove their trucks to the surf's edge while reporters, women in high heels and men in three-piece suits, watched workers in bright yellow rubber pants and jackets laboriously sponge up oil from the beach.
Some of those who gathered to watch the cleanup recalled when the same stretch of sand was soaked with petroleum in 1976 after the 810-foot oil tanker Sansinena exploded at nearby Pier 46. That was before the Port of Los Angeles transformed the neglected stretch of waterfront into a popular beach by building new restrooms and improved recreational facilities.
Before the improvements, "you couldn't even catch fish here or anything," said Dorothy Klausner who, along with her husband, Stanley, and their grandson briefly watched the cleanup. "Then the Harbor Department went on a big campaign and cleaned it all up."
While word of the weekend spill spread fast, some spectators were nevertheless surprised Monday that the oil had made its way to the beach.
"I heard about the spill, but I thought it was in the channel under the (Vincent Thomas) bridge," said Aaron Soto, a 28-year-old construction worker who had brought several friends to ski from his 19-foot motorboat. Soto, noticing that the oil had splotched the boat ramp and left a light sheen on the water, was hesitant to launch his boat for fear it might get covered with oil.
He also had some advice for the cleanup workers.
"Unless they get some detergent and some brushes, the oil is going to come off the rocks and into the water," Soto said, pointing to the oil-stained jetties and boulders near the boat ramp.
That oil will be blasted off with high-pressure hoses and then retrieved off the water with other equipment, said Joe Ortega, operations manager for Crosby & Overton Inc., one of two firms hired by Mobil to clean up the spill. Whether the company uses hot or cold salt water depends on a decision by state Department of Fish and Game officials on whether hot water would endanger marine life, he said.
Ramiro Palos, another Crosby & Overton worker who helped clean up the 1976 spill, said most of the beach cleanup work must be done at low tide to allow laborers access to the oil-stained sand and rocks.
"Twelve to 12," Palos said, as he drove away shortly after noon with a group of workers, saying that they would return at midnight to resume work with huge lights powered by a generator.
Palos and other workers said some of the contaminated sand was scooped off the beach by a bulldozer, but much of the oil could be soaked up with white absorbent pads similar to diapers--a back-breaking, time-consuming task done by hand but one that lessens the chance that any marine habitat will be disturbed or damaged.
"We call them Pampers," Ortega said.
Mobil officials said the spilled oil was a light grade of crude, and therefore spread more easily than a heavier grade would. While a light sheen of oil could still be seen at places on the harbor as late as Tuesday, Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti said most of the oil is expected to be recovered from the water surface by the end of this week.