LOS ANGELES -- A massive cargo ship that was supposed to be at anchor was buffeted by high winds during a January storm and repeatedly crossed over an undersea oil pipeline that later ruptured off the Southern California coast, according to vessel monitoring data.
Federal investigators are examining whether on Jan. 25, the anchor from the Panama-registered container ship MSC DANIT caught the pipe and pulled it across the seafloor, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. SondraKay Kneen said. Tracking data analyzed by the environmental group Skytruth showed that on that date the MSC DANIT drifted several times over the pipeline that is about 100 feet (30 meters) below the surface.
The storm came as an overflow of vessels was backed up outside the Los Angles-Long Beach ports complex, which has experienced huge delays as shipping volumes surge amid the pandemic. It had winds up to 63 mph (101 kph) and 17-foot (5.2-meter) seas, prompting 24 vessels to go to deeper waters to ride it out, according to a report by the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which oversees vessel traffic at the ports.
The tracking data “is looking very consistent with a vessel that is in trouble and getting knocked around out there,” Skytruth President John Amos said Monday. He said other ships also could have dragged anchor over the pipeline, and Kneen acknowledged the Coast Guard is “still looking at multiple vessels and scenarios.”
The Skytruth data is based on automatic broadcasts from the DANIT showing its location and status. It remained around its anchor point from Jan. 18 until early on Jan. 25, then began drifting erratically while still broadcasting that it was at anchor, the data showed.
The ship crossed over the pipeline at 5:47 a.m., then three more times over the next three hours, before its status changed to “under way” and it moved farther offshore and behind an island, presumably to shelter from the storm, Amos said.
The data doesn’t explain the long delay between the anchor dragging and the sudden appearance of oil in the water off Huntington Beach in early October.
“The bigger question is how is responsibility going to be determined?” Amos said. “If it turns out a ship in distress did snag this pipeline and pull it out of place, does that explain an oil spill that happened many months later?”
The Coast Guard is trying to determine if the DANIT's anchor drag caused the leak, if the line was hit by something else at a later date, or if it failed due to a preexisting problem, Kneen said, adding the investigation could take a year.
The accident just a few miles offshore sent about 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of crude into the water and then onto the sands of Huntington Beach and several other communities. While not as bad as initially feared, it has reignited the debate over offshore drilling in federal waters in the Pacific, where hundreds of miles of pipelines were installed decades ago.
A crack was found in the steel pipeline that sits exposed on the seafloor and is owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy. Video of the site showed the line’s concrete coating — meant to weigh it down to the seafloor — had broken off, suggesting it was hit by a large object such as an anchor.
The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee held a meeting Monday in Orange County to hear about the spill's impact on wildlife and businesses. Dr. Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said nearly 100 oiled birds were found, two-thirds of which died. Five mammals and more than a dozen fish were also recovered.
Scott Breneman, a fourth-generation commercial fisherman who has a retail and wholesale business and owns a seafood restaurant, said his business crashed after the spill. He said it reminded him of what his father dealt with after the oil tanker American Trader pierced its hull with its anchor off the coast in 1990, spilling over 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of oil in the same area.
“I watched my father struggle for months,” Breneman said. “I’ve seen the same exact thing happen here.”
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., said the spill should provide support for President Joe Biden’s proposed budget that would ban new offshore oil and gas leases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. She also called for an end to “outdated” subsidies for oil and gas companies.
“These subsidies and so many others are the reasons that oil wells like the ones behind this leak are still active,” Porter said. “Getting rid of the subsidies is the first step to get rid of the problem.”
The investigation into what caused the spill could lead to criminal charges or civil penalties.
A team of federal investigators boarded the DANIT on Saturday, hours after the 1,200-foot (366-meter) ship arrived at the Port of Long Beach from China. Kneen declined to say if any damage was found to an anchor on the DANIT.
The Coast Guard has designated the ship’s owner and operator as parties of interest in its investigation.
The DANIT’s operator, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, is headquartered in Switzerland and has a fleet of 600 vessels and more than 100,000 workers, according to the company. MSC spokesperson Giles Broom said Monday the company had no comment on the investigation.
The vessel’s owner, identified by the Coast Guard as the Dordellas Finance Corporation, could not be reached for comment.
At least two other vessels were previously boarded by investigators, who are examining logs kept by the ships' captains, officers and engineers and voyage data recorders — equivalent to the so-called black box on airplanes.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.