HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF., FEB. 13 -- Industry and nature have combined here to create something like a Hollywood horror film, with Huntington Beach playing the role of peaceful coastal town invaded by The Blob. "OIL ON THE BEACH," headlines scream, while national television carries nightly images of black crude on virginal golden sand.
Today, as foamy oil from the American Trader tanker spill continues to pour onto Huntington Beach and neighboring Bolsa Chica State Beach, taking a few steps back from the shoreline reveals how deceiving appearances can be.
About 45 oil wells, their pumps rising and falling like feeding birds, line the wide, sandy beaches that have made Huntington Beach a surfers' and strollers' delight. More than 600 other wells dot the city, including three pumping oil right out of the city hall parking lot, and offshore oil platforms and other sources of oil revenue have fattened the city treasury for decades.
Almost nothing has been said about this coast's long ties to the oil industry but, like California itself, Huntington Beach reveals the two conflicting faces of the modern West: sensitive to its environment and happy in its oil-fueled lifestyle. These may have a marked impact on how much actually changes here after the 390,000 gallons of spilled oil have been mostly forgotten.
"I'm not happy about the spill," said Dan Villella, Huntington Beach's finance director, as he discussed the city's annual $1.33 million in oil revenue. "But I don't feel it is appropriate to demand that these things be taken away."
With the two holes in its hull patched where it struck its own anchor last Wednesday, the American Trader cruised slowly Monday from the scene of the accident three miles offshore. Today, workers began pumping 19 million gallons from its undamaged tanks at an ARCO facility in nearby Long Beach.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Dennis Hall said about 35 percent of the spilled oil has been collected by 18 skimming vessels, about 47 percent has evaporated or dissipated and 18 percent remains on the water or has washed ashore to confront a 700-member cleanup crew.
Rising winds of up to 18 knots have pushed waves full of oil onto Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica since Sunday night. "Sometimes it's foamy and runny, and sometimes it's thick and gooey," Hall said.
Fish and game department officials said they remain concerned about storms pushing oil into the marshes at Bolsa Chica, home to the endangered California least tern and the brown pelican and a refuge for thousands of migratory birds and other wildlife.
But the beach and the Pacific Coast Highway have protected the wetlands from the oil, and only 135 dead birds, far fewer than would be expected from such a large spill, have been found. Another 312 oiled birds are being treated.
Longtime Huntington Beach residents have rushed to help the bird rescue and cleanup efforts, but there is no significant movement to cut the links between this city of 180,000 and the oil industry.
"People are getting more ecologically sensitive," said Mark Bodenbender, a fire department official who has lived here since 1951, "but they just want the oil industry to do things better, and 99 percent of the oil people are sensitive to that now."
The 672 working wells throughout the city are nothing compared to the 6,000 that once drew oil here, said Bodenbender, now in charge of the city's oil-field inspections. The city is negotiating to have some beachside wells removed as unsightly, and well owners now must meet much higher standards for landscaping and safety. But few people can envision Huntington Beach without oil.
The city's first well was sunk in 1921, part of coastal oil development that brought oil revenue to Newport Beach, also affected by the spill, and sucked so much petroleum from beneath Long Beach that the city was at one time literally sinking.
Slumping oil prices have shut some wells. But Villella said Huntington Beach, with about $80 million in total annual revenue, still receives about $700,000 from a barrel-licensing fee, $300,000 from lease of wells on city property, $80,000 in inspection fees, $80,000 in state leasing charges, $100,000 in hazardous materials fees, $10,000 in cap-off fees and $60,000 in leasing fees from the floating offshore terminal.
The American Trader damaged itself at that terminal while trying to unload oil into an underwater pipeline.
Californians consume 25 billion gallons of petroleum products a year, more than the people of any other state. The business executives, lawyers and other office workers drawn to Huntington Beach's clean air and pleasant vistas must spend two hours a day on the highway if they commute to downtown Los Angeles, exchanging inland air pollution and a heavy drain on oil resources for an enjoyable home environment.
The spill may result in improved tanker design and halt or slow offshore drilling, residents said. But short of development of some other form of relatively cheap, abundant energy, oil wells will remain in Huntington Beach and its shallow offshore waters.
Gov. George Deukmejian (R), who once represented Long Beach in the state legislature, has resisted calls for an end to offshore drilling, and at least one local member of Congress contends that more offshore platforms will decrease tanker traffic.
Huntington Beach, Bodenbender said, has been around long enough to know how quickly economics can change popular opinion. He said he remembers "when people tore down houses to make room for wells . . . and if the price went up to $50 a barrel, they'd start tearing them down again."