HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 04: In an aerial view, crews reinforce a sand berm (BOTTOM-C) blocking oil in the ocean from entering an inlet leading to the Talbert Marsh wetlands after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 4, 2021 in Huntington Beach, California. The spill forced the closure of the popular Great Pacific Airshow yesterday with authorities closing beaches in the vicinity.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Huntington Beach Mayor: It's 'all hands on deck' to mitigate oil spill
06:30 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Sean Anderson is a professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The oil spill off Huntington Beach and spreading to the surrounding area is not a lone actor or a unique monster. We have been here before and will be again – probably quite soon. This oil spill may well prove to be something of a replay of the 2015 Refugio spill that erupted over beaches about 150 miles north of Huntington Beach.

Sean Anderson

That Refugio Spill had significant impacts on the critters you’d expect, but also on some of our most hidden and cryptic coastal dwellers.

While oiled seabirds and marine mammals understandably garner the most attention and public sympathy, the research of students and faculty at California State University Channel Islands showed a high mortality rate among adults and developing young at the very base of our sandy beach ecosystems: sand crabs.

These thumb-sized crustaceans dwell in the sand where the tides crash into the coast. They are directly in the path of this floating oil. The spilled oil kills adult crabs when it is thick and developing eggs when it is diluted.

This should cause great concern. Everybody relies on these sand crabs: birds and fish eat them and humans use them for bait. Toxic oil in these crabs means oil in the food chain and eventually on our dinner tables. We are all connected, whether noticed or not.

Not only did nature take a hit with the 2015 Refugio spill, but so did our coastal businesses, with beach visitors significantly reducing spending in areas of heaviest oiling.

Both crabs and spending recovered after some months, but this oil taint from spills does not represent isolated events in a larger story of ecological disaster. It comes on the heels of decades of coastal development pressures, changing seas and the unfolding pandemic.

The Huntington Beach oil spill is an assault on top of many other assaults on our environment. We can no longer meet each one of these environmental assaults as individual events – we have to look at the stress on the entire system.

Instead of asking how might this particular spill damage this wetland or that harbor, we now must ask how much more additional stress can this coast and these waters, and all the creatures in them, take?

Too often our laws and policies still see these challenges in isolation.

For example, a polluter’s lawyers may well resist mitigating a spill’s economic damage with arguments akin to, “we are only responsible for the oil.”

And Covid-19 will not be seen as relevant. Yet a few weeks or months without customers thanks to this spill may doom those pandemic-stressed restaurants and tackle shops and other small businesses to close for good.

Oil spills, the pandemic, wildfire smoke. All are thought about and dealt with separately, but we have to look at them as a relentless series of events that are straining the environment as a connected whole.

California’s offshore oil infrastructure is mostly four to five decades old and needs constant tending. Built by the large, behemoth oil companies of old, these steel skyscrapers today are run by second-, third-, or even fourth-generation owners with vastly less technical and financial ability to properly maintain them.

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    Deferred upkeep and bankruptcies are increasingly the norm for these operators. The operator of this leaking pipeline emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 and has a long record of federal health and safety violations, the LA Times reported.

    All of this points to the need for more holistic thinking about our coupled human-natural systems in these strange and difficult times. We need to be resolved and honest, and to see beyond this spill and that crisis to the wider, weirded world we all have made. We have spun these awful webs, and we can untangle them.