A Southern California beach that was closed more than a week ago because of a leak of crude oil from an undersea pipeline reopened Monday, far sooner than many expected.
City and state beaches in Huntington Beach reopened after water quality tests revealed no detectable levels of oil associated toxins in the ocean water. Early Monday morning, surfers bobbed in the waves and people walked along the shoreline, some with dogs jumping and playing in the water.
The reopening came after weekend visitor Richard Beach returned to the waves in Huntington Beach with his bodyboard — until lifeguards on jet skis chased him out on Sunday. He trekked back across the beach, passing workers in hazmat suits tasked with clearing the sand of sticky, black blobs that washed ashore after the spill.
"The water's perfect," said Beach, 69. "Clear all the way to the bottom."
Huntington Beach and nearby coastal communities have been reeling from last week's spill that officials said sent at least about 25,000 gallons and no more than 132,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. It was caused by a leak about 5 miles off the coast in a pipeline owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy that shuttles crude from offshore oil platforms to the coast.
The spill was confirmed Oct. 2, a day after residents reported a petroleum smell in the area. The cause is under investigation and officials said they believe the pipeline was likely damaged by a ship's anchor several months to a year before it ruptured. It remains unknown when the slender, 13-inch crack in the pipeline began leaking oil.
On Sunday, there was no smell of oil and the sand looked largely clear by the Huntington Beach pier, where workers combed the sand for tar.
But local officials worry about the environmental impact of the spill on wetlands, wildlife and the economy. With the ocean off limits in the community dubbed Surf City USA, relatively few people were at the beach and shops that cater to them have been hurting.
Officials in the city of 200,000 people have been testing the water to ensure it's safe for people to go back in and said they'll continue the testing for at least two more weeks.
Before Monday, residents were allowed to walk on the sand in Huntington Beach but were prohibited from the shoreline and the water. Popular surfing and swimming spots in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach were also closed.
In Huntington Beach, shops selling everything from bikinis and stars-and-stripes boogie boards to sand toys and fishing gear took an economic hit during the closure. Marian Johnson, who owns Let's Go Fishing on the pier, said sales have been halved since the spill.
Mike Ali, who owns the nearby shop Zack's, said he had to close three of his four locations and reduce workers' hours. People were still renting bikes and buying food at his one store that remained open, but he said business dropped 90% without surf lessons, event catering and beach bonfires.
"It could be a year to two years to get the tourism to come back,” Ali said, adding that a 1990 oil spill wound up diverting would-be visitors to beaches south and north of the city.
Rich Toro, 70, still took his regular 25-mile bike ride down to Huntington Beach on Sunday.
But he said he wouldn't race to get back into the water because of the spill and worries about the impact on wildlife. Since the spill, officials have reported 38 dead birds and nine dead fish, while 27 oiled birds have been recovered and are being treated.
On Sunday morning, only a handful of people played beach volleyball on Huntington Beach while a few others exercised or relaxed on the sand.
But the water closures didn't deter everyone. While fishing was prohibited along the shore of almost all of Orange County, Michael Archouletta, 29, said he came down from East Los Angeles and saw no signs on the pier preventing him from dropping a line. A school of fish swam beneath the pier nearby.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press