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SPECIAL REPORT: Oil on the Beach

February 11, 1990|Graphics by SCOTT BROWN, DENNIS LOWE, DAVID PUCKETT, THOMAS PENIX and LYNETTE JOHNSON; Information compiled by ERIC BAILEY and DANNY SULLIVAN / Los Angeles Times

The Coast at Risk

At first, it was just another ship on the horizon. But all too suddenly the American Trader became much more. A freak accident off Huntington Beach sent 400,000 gallons of Alaskan crude gushing from the ship. The effects of the spill, the largest in Southern California in two decades, will be felt for months to come.


The rocky and picturesque coastline hosts numerous sea creatures that could be affected.


Alamitos Bay contains hundreds of pleasure craft and high-priced homes on the waterfront.


Containment boom placed across the mouth to keep oil out. Bay is entrance for web of waterways flanked by houses and wildlife. It also serves as nursery for fish.


Prime wetlands rich with bird, plant and sea life that could be devastated by spill. California brown pelican, least tern and light-footed clapper rail among endangered species that live in the wetlands.


Among the spots worst hit by oil. Fingers of slick struck beach, leaving a frothy line of oil along several sections. State park is site for aid stations for dozens of birds harmed by spill.


Boom has secured the mouth of the river, which hosts a least tern refuge.


City declared state of emergency. Clean up crews scour beach with absorbent pads. Boom covers mouth of harbor. Upper bay reserve is home to 165 species of migratory and resident birds, 60 species of fish, 20 different amphibians and reptiles and 10 mammals.


Profile of the spill

Ship: American Trader, 800-foot tanker.

When: Accident occurred about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: About two miles off Huntington Beach at Golden West Offshore Moorings.

Oil Spilled: Estimated 400,000 gallons.

The Slick: Continues to spread and change shape, moving onto and off shore with shifting winds and tides.

Imperiled wildlife: Dozens of gulls, grebes, cormorants and scoters washed ashore after spill. Several wetlands, home to fish nurseries, are also threatened.

Clean up: Skimmer boats sweeping ocean. Oil on beaches swabbed up by hundreds of paid crews and volunteers armed with absorbent pads.


Day One (wind 4 mph from south)

Day Two (wind 20 mph from west)

Day Three (wind 5 mph from west)

ANCHOR: The culprit?

The American Trader was maneuvering into a sea berth off Huntington Beach to offload oil when it apparently smacked its anchor, ripping two holes in its hull, spilling 400,000 gallons of crude oil.

1) Swells rocked ship in shallow water.

2) The vessel drifted over port anchor, wrapping the chain around its bow. As crew raised port anchor, officials believe it struck starboard side of hull, leaving three-foot gash and another hole.

3) Some veteran pilots suspect the tanker struck the anchor as it rested on sea floor in shallow water.

Sources: U.S. Coast Guard, news reports

SPILL CLEANUP: Skimming the ocean

Largest "skimmers" to respond to the spill are advanced vessels which collect and recover the oil in one system. Other systems usually use smaller boats to deploy booms which contain the oil and then recover the oil by placing skimmers into the middle of the patch.

MOVING THROUGH THE OIL The vessel moves directly through the middle of an oil patch at about 2 knots. With both arms extended, the vessel can clean a path about 145 feet wide.

SEPARATING OIL AND WATER The oil and seawater are transported to a holding tank on board the vessel. The mixture is then separated (using gravity), and the seawater is returned to the ocean. Each vessel can store only about 1,200 barrels of recovered oil.

SKIMMING THE OIL At the apex of each U-shaped boom, the oil is collected in a small enclosure. The oil-seawater mixture is pumped to the vessel for separation.

DEPLOYING THE BOOMS Two 50-foot arms extend off both sides of the boat. These arms deploy the booms which have a two-and-a-half foot skirt made of rubberized material. The booms are positioned into U-shapes behind the arms.

ENVIRONMENT: Attack on the food chain

It may take years before the full extent of the environmental damage becomes known--as the toxic effects of the oil moves through the food chain. Oil is absorbed by the lower elements in the chain--invertebrates and mussels--and passed to the fish that feed on them. Birds and mammals will suffer ill effects from feeding on the toxic fish.

MARINE MAMMALS Sea lions risk losing the insulating value of their fur if exposed to oil.

Dolphins and whales appear to be able to avoid the oil, but dolphins can suffer the effects if they eat contaminated food.

FISH Because it is not breeding season, the direct effects of oil are expected to be slight on most adult fish off the Orange County coast. The greatest concern is over fish which eat contaminated food. Another concern is that bottom-dwelling fish, such as halibut, may suffer if the oil settles on the ocean floor.

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