Advocates Want Answers About So-Cal Oil Spill, Authorities Point Fingers

Sunrise on San Clemente Island Image: Clark Anderson/Aquaimages

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

An oil spill has been sighted off the coast of San Clemente Island, the southernmost of California’s Channel Islands. The spill was initially spotted by the captain of a whale-watching boat, who filmed a pod of dolphins swimming through the oil slick and called it “the most tragic thing [he had] ever filmed.” But the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy are declining to investigate the spill. Experts say that the spill could negatively impact humans and wildlife alike. But authorities don’t seem intent on holding anyone accountable.

Why This Matters: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), thousands of oil and fuel spills happen each year in the U.S., and even the most minor spills can have significant consequences. In addition to coating and disrupting marine life, toxic substances in oil and fuel can wreak havoc on entire ecosystems, even after the spill has “dissipated.” Spills are tough to clean, and large mammals, like the dolphins spotted near San Clemente, are difficult to recover if seriously harmed.

The U.S. Coast Guard is traditionally responsible for cleaning up oil spills, but in San Clemente, it’s deflecting to the Navy.

Something in the Water: Tragic doesn’t begin to cover it. For more than 50 miles, the ocean was covered in a thick sheen of oil, a devastating tragedy for the environment,” said Domenic Biagini, owner, and captain of Gone Whale Watching San Diego. He reported that the spill spanned more than 50 miles and dolphins could be seen swimming through the oil slick. Boat passengers experienced noxious fumes when passing by the spill. “I mean, we couldn’t breathe. It was like the fumes were so toxic. It was such a dense area,” said Biagini. 

The Coast Guard, which NOAA says is responsible for oil spill cleanup, said that the Navy is responsible for investigating spills. But the Navy reported that its boats did not see a spill in the area. When local news reached out to the Navy, it said it had no reports of an oil spill at all.

Neither institution intends to perform an investigation into where the spill came from. Adam Stanton, Coast Guard public affairs specialist, told the San Clemente Times that the spill, believed to be diesel fuel, had likely already dissipated. The Coast Guard did report sighting another spill closer to San Diego on Saturday but said it would likely dissipate on its own and didn’t require cleanup. 


Advocates are frustrated by the lack of answers or concern from federal officials. Some have speculated that the Navy, which owns San Clemente Island and operates vessels in the region, may be responsible for the spill, but the Navy has denied that. As the Biden administration moves to protect 30% of all U.S. land and waters by 2030, communication and transparency between federal authorities and the public must be prioritized. Biagini said in an Instagram post that he’s still waiting for answers. “A spill of this magnitude in one of the most critical feeding spots for endangered Blue Whales can not be allowed to be swept under the rug!”

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