Oil spill laps at “heartbeat” of California beach community

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Most days of the week, David Perry heads out to the beach to surf. But on Sunday, he sat with his skateboard taking in sweeping ocean views while a jazz band played, families rode bikes and crews tried to stop a crude oil sick from reaching the California coast.

Offshore oil platforms are always visible from the community known as “Surf City USA,” and most days are seen as just another hazard for those venturing out with their boards, the 35-year-old said. Now, the massive spill threatens to keep the ocean off-limits for weeks or months, harm marine life and halt the waterfront activities that are the lifeblood of Southern California’s Huntington Beach.

“The surfing is the heartbeat of the community,” Perry said, adding that he moved away for a few months and ached to return to the community, where he often runs into top-notch surfers riding waves and finds most residents engaged in an active lifestyle through surfing, skateboarding, cycling or other outdoor exercise. “There’s something about the heartbeat of Huntington Beach that it has a very unique heartbeat.”

The Orange County city of 200,000 people is known for its scenic coastline and hosts numerous events each year that draws far more people to its shores. Surf shops selling boards and gear line the streets of downtown along with bars and restaurants. On the beach, the bike path lures riders and on a typical day, people walk the pier and watch the surfers in their wetsuits, bobbing in the waves.

Starting late Friday or early Saturday, boaters began reporting an oily sheen in the water. At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of crude oil spilled from a now-shut off pipeline into the waters off Orange County, officials said.

That prompted Huntington Beach officials to close the beach. Authorities on Sunday used speakers to tell visitors to stay out of the water and yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers.

Some people came out anyway to sit on lawn chairs and play beach volleyball, but not the typical crowds for sunny October day. Some had traveled to attend the Pacific Air Show, which drew 1.5 million people on Saturday, but officials cancelled the event’s third day as oil started washing up on the coast and a thick stench permeated the air.

Maxwell Owachgiu, who lives in the inland community of Diamond Bar some 40 miles away, decided to come with his family despite the spill, believing it had only come ashore further south. But he wound up with oily residue stuck to his feet after wading into the water, and told his wife their two young daughters shouldn’t get in.

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the ocean could be closed for weeks or months but it’s too soon to know.

Lesa O’Shea, a 63-year-old nurse from the city, said she snapped a photo of the smelly blobs of oil in the ocean and was dismayed to see kids playing in the water nearby. She said she comes down to the beach at least once a week from her home a few miles away to ride bikes, walk, or if it’s warm enough, swim.

“It’s a beach lifestyle,” O’Shea said while grabbing a bite at an outdoor eatery. “So people of course ride bikes, they walk the beach, they surf, they swim, they lay in the sun, and now you can’t do any of that down there with the oil slick.”

Before heading home, O’Shea said she planned to stop at the store to buy some supplies to donate to a local wildlife center that tends to wounded and sick birds.

Carr, whose husband surfs and daughter participates in a junior lifeguard program, said the beach was a main reason her family lived in the community. Seeing the environmental impact of the spill, with oil-covered fish and birds washing up on the shore, has been devastating, she said.

“There will be a significant impact to our community, but I also know that we will bounce back,” she said.

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