Ship identified as possible cause of damaged California oil pipeline

Oil sheens off Southern California from the damaged pipeline.
Oil sheens off Southern California from the damaged pipeline.
Oil sheens off Southern California from the damaged pipeline.


The Coast Guard has identified the owner and operator of the containership MSC Danit as “parties in interest” in the damaged pipeline that leaked oil off Southern California.

The service is investigating other possible vessels of interest in the incident, Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. j.g. SondraKay Kneen said. Those ships have not been identified.

Authorities believe the anchor of a large ship dragged across the 16-inch San Pedro Pipeline. They suggest it occurred anywhere from several months ago to a year ago, when the pipeline was last surveyed and found to be intact.

Capt. Jason Neubauer, chief of investigations for the U.S. Coast Guard, told reporters on Oct. 8 that the wide time frame is based on a recent underwater survey video showing a 13-inch linear fracture with marine growth. The pipeline also is more than 100 feet out of position.

“You can see that there was likely an initial incident of some kind of anchor drag over that section. But since that time, there has been [marine] growth. That has refocused the time frame of our investigation,” Neubauer said during the press conference.

Crews work to clean nearby beaches as containerships anchor offshore.
Crews work to clean nearby beaches as containerships anchor offshore.

The Coast Guard and other government agencies have not determined definitively that an anchor strike damaged the pipeline. Subsequent testing is under way to try to determine the nature and cause of the breach.

“Many different factors could have added stress to the pipeline, including seismic activity, contact from an anchor, or internal cleaning of the pipeline,” Neubauer told Professional Mariner by email. He said a metallurgical analysis of the fracture by the National Transportation Safety Board “may provide answers on how the crack formed and propagated.”

Neubauer also made clear more than one vessel could have dragged anchor over the pipeline over an extended period. 

“For that reason, we’re going to keep looking at vessels — a number of them — and we’re not ready to rule out any vessels as a contributing cause of this incident.”

“We are now sifting through one year’s worth of automatic identification system (AIS) data and radar images from multiple sources, including the Coast Guard’s Marine Exchange Vessel Traffic Service,” he continued. “That data will take some time to review.” 

The 1,200-foot MSC Danit is operated by Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Co., and it is owned by Dordellas Finance Corp. The ship was involved in an “anchor-dragging incident” on Jan. 25, 2021, in the bay near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the service said. The incident happened during a severe storm, which brought 30- to 55-knot winds and swells up to 17 feet.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California, which provides information for the Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex, said in a social media post that 24 ships went out to sea rather than remain at anchor during the storm.

Federal investigators boarded the Panama-flagged MSC Danit on Oct. 16 and spent part of the day aboard the ship, Kneen said. It arrived a day earlier at the Port of Long Beach from Shanghai, China, according to AIS data.

Officials do not yet know when oil began releasing from the San Pedro Pipeline, which runs from the Port of Long Beach to an oil processing platform named Elly, located about 9 miles from the seaside community of Huntington Beach.

A large slick was reported Oct. 1, and oil was later discovered in nearby wetlands and on beaches, as well as dead fish and birds. The Coast Guard estimates between 25,000 and 132,000 gallons of oil spilled from the pipeline. The pipeline and the Elly platform are owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp.

SkyTruth, a nonprofit using satellite imagery and data to expose environmental harm, on Oct. 17 posted a Google Earth image depicting exactEarth AIS vessel tracking data that showed the 14,000-TEU MSC Danit moving across the pipeline several times on Jan. 24 and 25. 

“The positioning of the MSC Danit in relation to the pipeline during the storm event” is under investigation, Neubauer said by email. 

Authorities also are examining how the Coast Guard designated anchorages in federal waters near the pipeline when the anchorages were established in 2006.

“The investigation will examine the approval process used for the added anchorages to determine whether surrounding hazards, like the oil pipeline, were properly evaluated,” Neubauer said.

A parties-in-interest designation means attorneys for Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Co. and Dordellas Finance can cross-examine witnesses and call their own during the casualty investigation.

MSC did not respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach Dordellas Finance Corp. for comment were not successful.