HUNTINGTON BEACH — For Jack Clapp and others whose businesses rely on Southern Californians' love affair with the beach, it came as a relief Saturday when authorities reopened to swimmers several miles of coastal waters that had been threatened by a small spill of diesel fuel.
"All of these things affect our business," said Clapp, whose family for 60 years has operated Dwight's concession stand, near the Huntington Beach Pier.
But with the water from Golden West Street to the Santa Ana River reopened as of dawn, Clapp said, "the only thing that's affecting our business is the weather"--another morning mantle of gray clouds.
Lifeguards on Friday ordered all people out of the water about 3:30 p.m. after splotches of a thin, rainbow-colored sheen emerged offshore, from the Newport Beach Pier to about 5th Street in Huntington Beach.
On Saturday, officials said that quick evaporation and a cooperative tide had helped to keep the spill from entering sensitive wetland areas such as the Talbert Marsh.
"Most of our actions (on Friday) were precautionary," said Colleen E. Keith, supervising fire controller for the Huntington Beach Fire Department. "The high tide was at 2:49 (p.m. on Friday) so, the tide was going out" as the paper-thin slick threatened to come ashore.
Traces of the sheen did wash ashore on Friday, smelling of diesel. Keith said investigatory reports she reviewed Saturday estimated that 90% of the spill dissipated by about 4:20 p.m. on Friday, two hours after it was first spotted by a helicopter crew.
Keith said the offending substance was most likely about 20 to 25 gallons of diesel fuel, dumped illegally in the water from the bilge of a pleasure craft.
In Laguna Beach, about 400 feet of beach remained closed on Saturday because of seepage from an underground gasoline tank at Pearl Street, 1 1/2 miles south of the city's popular Main Beach. Edward Ramirez, who operates the Texaco station at Pearl Street and Pacific Coast Highway, said that Texaco has agreed to clean up the gasoline.
Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said the gasoline may have leaked years ago and been unearthed by recent high tides. Frank said the beach, closed since Thursday, will probably reopen in a few days.
For many, Friday's closure in Huntington Beach served as another reminder that Orange County's coastal environment is vulnerable--and remains at the mercy of events often beyond the control of those who use the beach or otherwise delight in its beauty.
"I'm sure whoever did it doesn't care about the beach," said 28-year-old Paul Orloff of La Habra, who arrived Saturday morning to surf at the Huntington Beach cliffs, just north of Golden West Street. "They (the culprits) are not like surfers. They don't care about the beach."
Said Gordon Smith, board chairman of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy: "It's sort of a reminder. It doesn't pay to get complacent because there's a lot of areas that can cause us trouble."
With the environmental havoc caused by the American Trader oil spill of February, 1990, still fresh in their minds, Huntington Beach officials said that closing the waters on Friday was the correct decision, even though the spill turned out to be of small scope.
"We're always looking for another big one," said Mayor Peter M. Green, who teaches biology and zoology at Golden West College. Friday's spill "wasn't as serious as we had anticipated. But I always think that prudence should prevail in these situations."
Huntington Beach Marine Safety Lt. Steve G. Davidson estimated that 30,000 people visited the city's beaches on Saturday--another low turnout in a year that has conjured memories of the mid-'70s "Bummer Summer" of sun-blocking clouds.
Davidson said officials had decided by late Friday night that the waters would be reopened at dawn. Yet when volunteers for a three-day surfing contest being held next to the pier arrived about 5:30 a.m., they were told by lifeguards that the water was still off limits, according to event organizer Gary Shockley of Southern California Edison Co.
"That's when they called me up at home," Davidson said, "and I said, 'OK, get in the water.' " Shockley said that the final matchups for the pro and amateur surfing contest are scheduled for today, beginning at 6:30 a.m.
Except for some complaints from people who wanted parking fee refunds, Davidson said, beach-goers had few gripes about the inconvenience of Friday's closure. Yet despite Saturday's good news of the reopening, Clapp, the concessionaire who has seen decades of sun-splashed summers, said 1991 has not been kind.
"This is the worst we've ever seen, and we've been here for 60 years," Clapp said. "We can't recapture our business. People are not going to come down and buy two hamburgers today if they didn't buy one yesterday."
Times staff writer George Frank contributed to this article.