Elected officials on alert after tarballs found at several North County beaches

CARLSBAD — Lifeguards in Carlsbad, Oceanside Encinitas and Del Mar reported finding at least a dozen tar balls this week, prompting a bipartisan group of federal, state and local elected officials to outline preparations for the possibility of oil drifting onto beaches in San Diego County during an Oct. 7 press conference at Carlsbad State Beach.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the oil-based substances, which were also found at beaches in Encinitas and Del Mar, have been submitted for testing to determine if they are connected to an Oct. 3 oil spill in Huntington Beach. 

According to reports, about 126,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled from a damaged oil pipeline connected to Amplify Energy’s “Elly” platform, although the Orange County Register reported the amount may be less.

Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas) said the tarballs in Carlsbad were discovered near lifeguard Tower 38, which is just west of the intersection of Pine Avenue and Carlsbad Boulevard.

If the tarballs are related to the spill, Fletcher said the county would then declare a local state of emergency to free up state and federal resources. Additionally, Fletchers stressed the actions taken by the county and cities are precautionary, proactive measures.

Lifeguards reported finding several tarballs near Tower 38 at Carlsbad State Beach. Photo by Steve Puterski
Lifeguards reported finding several tarballs near Tower 38 at Carlsbad State Beach. Photo by Steve Puterski

“While it is not impossible for this to occur naturally, the quantity is highly unusual and it is very likely these tarballs are a result of the oil spill,” Fletcher said. “We do not know that for certain yet. We requested the Unified Command team for an assessment and came to San Diego County.”

As for beach closures, Fletcher said each local jurisdiction is responsible for closing any beaches, although any local closures would likely be done in coordination with state and federal agencies. 

Supervisor Jim Desmond called for an end to offshore drilling in California, especially in San Diego County, a position supported by Fletcher, Boerner Horvath, Congressman Mike Levin (CA-49), Carlsbad Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel and Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall. 

Desmond also noted the Board of Supervisors had previously approved a call to action, sending a letter to Congress requesting to halt the practice. Levin, an environmental attorney prior to serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, has also campaigned on the urgency to shut down offshore drilling.

The bipartisan collective also noted the potential economic and environmental toll of the oil spill on Huntington Beach and surrounding beaches in Orange County. More than $40 billion of the state’s economy, such as fishing and tourism, is tied to its coastline, along with thousands of jobs.

“We are doing this out of an abundance of caution,” Desmond said. “We are assessing this now. There is no immediate danger. Today is a day none of us wanted, but we have to deal with it.”

Levin said there is a provision in the Build Back Better bill in front of Congress to ban all new offshore drilling in California.

“Where Republicans and Democrats, but on this one, we agree supervisor,” Levin said, acknowledging Desmond. “I talk to Republicans, Democrats and Independents and I ask who is in support … and very few hands go up. About the only people that I’ve met that want to see more drilling off our coast is the oil companies.”  

As for San Diego County, Desmond and Fletcher said the Emergency Operations Center is operational and coordinating with local, state and federal officials.

Environmental safeguards have also been deployed, with booms being set around Carlsbad’s three lagoons, the desalination plant and a number of rivers from Oceanside to Del Mar, Horvath said.

Hall said Poseidon Water, which operates the Carlsbad desalination plant and creates 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, has been proactive in its defenses of any potential oil reaching its operations.

Terry Brown, a spokesperson for the City of Oceanside, said a shoreline assessment team found more tarballs on Oct. 7, which were sent for chemical testing.

In Encinitas, a city spokesperson provided the following statement:

“North County coastal cities, including Encinitas, have found tar on our local beaches. We are working closely with the San Diego County Health Department to assess and determine any risk to public safety. At this time, the beaches remain open. However, we do not recommend that members of the public handle, remove, or clean up debris. In addition, do not attempt to help any affected wildlife as this requires special handling.” 

Residents may report wildlife impacted by the oil spill to the California Department of Wildlife. For information on the oil spill, visit For the Department of Wildlife, call (877) 823-6926 and for general information call (866) 985-8366.

Samantha Nelson and Bill Slane contributed reporting for this article.