HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif .– U.S. Coast Guard investigators boarded a massive freighter as they investigate the causes of a ruptured offshore pipeline that sent crude washed up on southern beaches from California.
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express appeared to make a series of unusual movements as it anchored at the spot closest to where the pipeline rupture had occurred, according to data collected by a maritime 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.
AP 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.
MarineTraffic spokesman Fotini Tseroni said in an email early Thursday that the questionable movements shown for the Rotterdam Express on its website may have resulted from errors involving the ship’s GPS system, rather than showing the actual position of the vessel. The company said it was removing positional jumps to show the ship was staying in its anchorage.
The Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 305 meters in length, was assigned to the SF-3 anchorage, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, confirmed Thursday that investigators boarded the ship on Wednesday while it was docked at the port of Oakland. The company said it played no part in the oil spill.
“We are fully cooperating with the authorities at this time,” said Nils Haupt, spokesperson for Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters in Hamburg, Germany.
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 spokesman for the Coast Guard, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express on Wednesday, but said the agency was analyzing its vessel traffic service’s electrical mapping systems to see which ships were anchored or were moving through the spill area.
MarineTraffic data reviewed by AP showed 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. He then showed that the ship’s position changed drastically three times over the next few days, making it appear that the ship had drifted over the underwater pipeline about 2,500 feet from the anchorage. The vessel’s location data, which works through a global network called an automatic identification system, is believed to be accurate and reliable to within a few meters.
The first report of the presence of oil in the water near the pipeline was made on the evening of Friday, October 1. Amplify said the pipeline was closed early Saturday morning, but did not say how long it believes the oil has 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 has publicly stated that there is no more than 126,000 gallons (477,000 liters) of a leak, but told federal investigators it may only have been 29,400 gallons (111,300 liters). ).
AP first contacted Hapag-Lloyd on Tuesday evening, seeking an explanation for the vessel’s movements on September 22 and 23.
On Wednesday, Nils denied that the ship ever left the anchor at point SF-3 during this period. 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.”
AP sent an email Wednesday morning to the Joint Information Center of the Unified Command for state and federal agencies responding to the oil spill, requesting comment on the movements made by the Rotterdam Express before the spill. Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said the command was unable to discuss matters involving an ongoing investigation.
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.
According to data from MarineTraffic, the ship left Long Beach on Monday for the Port of Oakland. It was still moored there Thursday morning, while it was due to leave Wednesday evening.
Associated Press writer Michael Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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Contact the AP Global Investigation Team at [email protected]