A large oil spill off the Southern California coast left fish dead, birds mired in petroleum and wetlands contaminated, in what local officials called an environmental catastrophe.

The U.S. Coast Guard, heading a cleanup response involving federal, state and city agencies, on Sunday announced an around-the-clock investigation into how the spill occurred.

An estimated 572,800 litres, or 3,000 barrels, had spread into an oil slick covering about 20 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean since it was first reported on Saturday morning, Kim Carr, the mayor of Huntington Beach, told a news conference.

“We are in the midst of a potential ecological disaster,” said Carr, whose beachside city is located about 65 km south of Los Angeles.

Carr went on: “Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil.”

WATCH | Nearby marshland, home to dozens of bird species, affected:

Massive oil spill washes up on California shores, killing wildlife

The equivalent of nearly 3,000 barrels of oil washed up on the California coast south of Los Angeles, killing birds and fish. 1:40

The spill was caused by a breach connected to the Elly oil rig and stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier down to Newport Beach, an area popular with surfers and sunbathers.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife ordered a fishery closure for coastal areas affected by the spill.

The closure will extend from Huntington Beach further south to Dana Point for the coastal areas, and it will extend up to 10 km off the coastal points for the offshore area, the department said late Sunday.

Disaster declaration requested

Carr said the oil rig was operated by Beta Offshore, a California subsidiary of Houston-based Amplify Energy Corporation. 

Carr, in her remarks, said: “In the coming days and weeks we challenge the responsible parties to do everything possible to rectify this environmental catastrophe.”

A person stands near the shore at Huntington State Beach on Sunday after the spill from an offshore oil platform. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said at a press conference that the pipeline had been shut off and remaining oil suctioned out. He said divers were still trying to determine where and why the spill occurred.

Shares of Amplify plunged nearly 63 per cent in pre-market trading and were headed for their worst day of trading.

Michelle Steel, a Republican congresswoman representing part of the affected area, sent a letter to Democratic President Joe Biden requesting a major disaster declaration for Orange County, which would free up federal funds to help with the cleanup efforts.

Steel later told CNN: “This is a really serious disaster.”

Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democratic state assembly member representing some areas affected by the spill, said she had “huge concerns” about the extent of the damage to the environment, communities and local economy.

Cleanup contractors deployed skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further oil crude incursion into Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

She told CNN the spill was a “call to action that we need to stop drilling off our precious California coast.”

Oil production off California’s coast has declined sharply since its peak in the 1990s, in part due to the state’s strict environmental rules. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wants to end oil drilling in the state by 2045.

Conservationists renew call to ban offshore drilling

Offshore drilling was restricted in the state after a devastating 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara that dumped 80,000 barrels into the ocean. Another spill off Santa Barbara in 2015 sent as much as 2,400 barrels onto the shore and into the Pacific.

Oceana, an ocean conservation group, also called for an end to offshore oil and gas drilling.

Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s chief policy officer, said in a statement: “This is just the latest tragedy of the oil industry. It’s well past time to prevent future oil spills by permanently protecting our coasts from offshore drilling.”

A surfer floats next to oil slicks on the water near the shoreline of Huntington Beach, Calif., on Sunday. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

The spill occurred in federal waters. Officials said federal, state and city agencies were involved in a response headed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

On Sunday, Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley said the oil had infiltrated the Talbert Marsh, a large ecological reserve, causing “significant damage.”

Democratic congressman from California reacts:

Beaches were closed to swimming and a local air show was cancelled, although some people were undeterred from setting up chairs on the beach to enjoy a sunny Sunday or strolling along the pier.

Carr said officials had deployed 625 metres of protective booms, which help contain and slow the oil flows.

The U.S. Coast Guard, working with local and state agencies, flew airplanes and deployed boats to assess the spill and had hired contractors to clean it up. Nearly 12,000 litres of oil have been recovered from the water, the Coast Guard said.

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