U.S. Coast Guard investigators have boarded a massive cargo ship as part of the ongoing probe into what caused the rupture of a California oil pipeline that sent crude washing up on beaches.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express made a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to where the break in the pipeline occurred, according to data collected by a marine navigation service. The Coast Guard is investigating whether a ship anchor might have snagged and bent the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles.

AP reviewed more than two weeks of data from MarineTraffic, a navigation service that tracks radio signals from transponders that broadcast the locations of ships and large boats every few minutes.

That data shows the Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 305 metres long, was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. The ship made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it over the pipeline.

In a statement to AP on Thursday, Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, confirmed that investigators boarded the ship while it was docked at the Port of Oakland on Wednesday. The company has said it played no role in the oil spill.

“We are fully co-operating with the authorities at this moment,” said Nils Haupt, a spokesperson¬†at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters in Hamburg, Germany.

Cleanup crews wearing protective suits retrieve oil deposits around Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. (Eugene Garcia/The Associated Press)

A U.S. official told the AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in the early stages.

The investigators are seeking to collect tracking and navigational information from the vessel that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also seeking preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.

The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesperson, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express Wednesday, but said the agency is analyzing electric charting systems from its vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the spill area.

The MarineTraffic data reviewed by AP shows the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the Port of Long Beach early on Sept. 22 and dropped anchor about 610 metres from the pipeline.

Sudden movement

The following day, at about 5 p.m., the data for the ship’s locator beacon indicated that while anchored it suddenly moved thousands of feet to the southeast, a track that would have taken it over the pipeline lying on the seafloor about 30 metres below. The ship appears to have then engaged its engines to return to its anchorage about 10 minutes later.

The ship then moved again around midnight and a third time shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 23, each time moving back to its assigned anchorage, according to its online location data. The Rotterdam Express remained at spot SF-3 until Sunday, when it moved into the port to unload.

The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline was made Friday evening. Amplify said the pipeline was shut down early Saturday morning but has not said how long it believes oil flowed from it.

Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher said Tuesday divers determined a 1,219-metres section of the pipeline was dislodged 32 meters, bent back like the string on a bow. Oil escaped through a slender crack.

The amount is unclear. Amplify has said publicly that no more than 476,962 litres leaked but told federal investigators it may be only 111,291 litres.

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