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BREAKWATER BREAKDOWN: Built (Not) to Spill

Published 4/2/2008 on the District Weekly

What would happen to Long Beach’s 40-year-old oil islands if something should happen to the Long Beach Breakwater, allowing a storm to strike the garish little landmarks with open-ocean force?

“That’s a good question,” says Bill McFarland, human resources manager and 26-year employee of THUMS Long Beach Company (the islands’ operator in contract with Occidental since 2000). It’s not that good of a question. The fate of the four oil islands with the Austin Powers-era facades is one of the first things everybody brings up whenever anybody suggests reconfiguring the breakwater. “If the breakwater were changed,” McFarland speculates, “the islands may have to be reinforced with more boulders.”

Actually, what’s good is the answer to that four-pronged what-could-go-wrong: Nothing.

Bud Johnson, a retired marine engineer and consultant who has conducted his own breakwater reconaissance study, says the oil islands would hold up just fine.

The islands and the breakwater were built out of boulders from the same Catalina Island quarry by the same company—Connolly-Pacific Co., a rock quarrying and marine construction business with deep roots in the region.

The islands may be named after astronauts—Grissom, White, Chaffee and Freeman—and made to look like off-shore bachelor-pad apartments with colorful lighting and artificial waterfalls, but they are actually 42 collective acres of dead-serious oil derricks built to pump money. Some 1,200 oil wells with at least 20 years of productivity left in them poke beneath the pretty surface, originally built with 640,000 tons of boulders and 3.2 million cubic yards of sand.

Connolly-Pacific’s communication department won’t comment on the islands’ construction, saying, “It has been such a long time and none of the people involved then are around.”

But Johnson was around then, and he says the oil islands have already been reinforced—a precautionary project undertaken after a bad winter storm destroyed Seal Beach’s oil platform, Esther, in 1983.

“The islands,” he says, “are built to handle it.”

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