Posted on Wednesday October 6, 2021 | 8:33 p.m.
Updated 0 minutes ago
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) – A huge freighter made a series of unusual movements while anchored at the closest spot to a Southern California pipeline that ruptured and sent crude stranded on the beaches, according to data collected by a marine navigation service.
The Coast Guard is investigating whether a ship anchor may have snagged and bent the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles.
The Associated Press has examined 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.
These data show that the Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged vessel nearly 305 meters in length, was assigned to the SF-3 mooring, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. The vessel made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it above the pipeline.
In a statement to AP, Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, denied any role in the oil spill.
A US official told AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express had become the focus of the spill investigation. The official warned the vessel was just an ongoing lead in the investigation, which is still in its early stages.
Investigators are looking to collect tracking and navigational information from the vessel that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also looking for preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.
The official was unable to publicly discuss the investigation and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express, but said the agency was scanning its vessel traffic service’s electrical mapping systems to see which ships were anchored or were moving through the spill area.
Data from MarineTraffic shows that the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the port of Long Beach in early September 22 and anchored about 2,000 feet (610 meters) from the pipeline.
The next day, at around 5 p.m., data from the vessel’s locator beacon indicated that while anchored, she had suddenly moved thousands of feet to the southeast, a track that would have brought her to- above the pipeline resting on the seabed approximately 100 feet (30 meters) below. The vessel then appears to have engaged its engines to regain its anchorage approximately 10 minutes later.
The vessel then moved again around midnight and a third time shortly before 8 a.m. on September 23, each time returning to its assigned anchorage, according to its online whereabouts data. The Rotterdam Express remained at point SF-3 until Sunday, when it entered the port to unload.
The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline was made on Friday evening. Amplify said the pipeline was closed early Saturday morning, but did not say how long it believed oil had been flowing from it.
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher said Tuesday that divers had determined that a 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) section of the pipeline had been dislodged 105 feet (32 meters), bent like the rope of a bow. Oil escaped through a thin crack.
The amount is not clear. Amplify publicly stated that there was no more than 126,000 gallons (98,421 liters) of leakage, but told federal investigators it was only 29,400 gallons (11,129 liters).
AP first contacted Hapag-Lloyd on Tuesday evening, seeking an explanation for the vessel’s movements on September 22 and 23.
Nils Haupt, a spokesperson for its headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, denied in an email on Wednesday that the ship had ever left the anchor at point SF-3 during that time. He stated that the transponder data displayed by MarineTraffic is incorrect.
“We have proof from the logbook, which is updated hourly, that the vessel has not moved,” Haupt said. “MarineTraffic in this case is false and the position is indeed incorrect.”
Haupt said Hapag-Lloyd will cooperate with any investigation.
On Wednesday morning, AP sent an email containing a screenshot of the movements of the Rotterdam Express, as reported on MarineTraffic, to the Joint Information Center of the Unified Command for state and federal agencies responding to the oil spill. Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said the command was unable to discuss matters involving an ongoing investigation.
Nikolas Xiros, professor of marine engineering at the University of New Orleans, said it would be highly unlikely for data from a ship’s transponder, which operates through a global network called an automatic identification system, to be lagged. of several thousand feet.
âAIS carriers are very precise and the whole system is also very precise,â Xiros said after examining the Rotterdam Express locator track. âI think the ship has probably moved, that’s what I think. And with the anchor down, which was a big deal.
Xiros, who spent more than two decades teaching maritime navigation and electronics to future captains and crews of ships, said the only alternative explanation he could think of was that someone had hacked into the AIS system to make appearing the Rotterdam Express moving or that the ship’s transmitter somehow detached from its mast, fell into the water and drifted before being picked up by the crew, and then detach it two more times.
Xiros said he could not provide any reasonable explanation as to why the ship could have strayed so far from its assigned station. The records show relatively calm weather and seas on the days in question.
âThere is a series of peculiar things and everything that needs to be explained,â Xiros said. âIt could very well be some sort of accident, but not necessarily human error. We’ll have to see. Butâ¦ I think the most likely explanation is that the ship with the anchor down went back and forth and maybe damaged the pipeline.
If a ship’s anchor becomes entangled with an underwater obstacle such as a communications cable or an oil pipeline, the operator is required by federal law to notify the Coast Guard. The locations and movements of vessels are also regularly monitored by AIS and radar, according to the Coast Guard.
Xiros said if he investigates the cause of the oil spill, he will seek to examine digital logs for locate and engine operations aboard the Rotterdam Express.
According to data from MarineTraffic, the ship left Long Beach on Monday for the Port of Oakland, where it was moored at a dock Wednesday evening.
Associated Press writer Michael Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Follow AP investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck
Contact the AP Global Investigation Team at [emailÂ protected]