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Crews race to limit damage from major California oil spill
Crews on the water and on shore worked feverishly to limit environmental damage from one of the largest oil spills in recent California history
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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Crews on the water and on shore worked feverishly Sunday to limit environmental damage from one of the largest oil spills in recent California history, caused by a suspected leak in an underwater pipeline that fouled the sands of famed Huntington Beach and could keep the beaches there closed for weeks or longer.

Booms were deployed on the ocean surface to try to contain the oil while divers sought to determine where and why the leak occurred. On land, there was a race to find animals harmed by the oil and to keep the spill from harming any more sensitive marshland.

An estimated 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude leaked into the waters off Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday, when boaters began reporting a sheen in the water, officials said. The pipeline and operations at three off-shore platforms owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp. were shut down Saturday night, CEO Martyn Willsher said.

He said the 17.5-mile (28.16-kilometer) pipeline that is 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 meters) below the surface was suctioned out so no more oil would spill as the location of the leak was being investigated.

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said the beaches of the community nicknamed “Surf City” could remain closed for weeks or even months. The oil created a miles-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules.

“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” Carr said. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”

Some birds and fish were caught in the muck and died, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said. But by early afternoon Saturday the U.S. Coast Guard said there so far was just one ruddy duck that was covered in oil and receiving veterinary care. “Other reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.

Crews led by the Coast Guard-deployed skimmers laid some 3,700 feet (1,128 meters) of floating barriers known as booms to try to stop more oil from seeping into areas including Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre (10-hectare) wetland officials said.

A petroleum stench permeated the air throughout the area.

“You get the taste in the mouth just from the vapors in the air,” Foley said.

The oil will likely continue to wash up on the shore for several days and affect Newport Beach and other nearby communities, officials said.

The closure included all of Huntington Beach, from the city's north edge about 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) south to the Santa Ana River jetty. The shutdown came amid summerlike weather that would have brought big crowds to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing. Yellow caution tape was strung between lifeguard towers to keep people away.

Officials canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Air Show that typically draws tens of thousands of spectators to the city of about 200,000 residents south of Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The leaking pipeline connects to an oil production platform named Elly, which in turn is connected by a walkway to a drilling platform named Ellen. Those two platforms and another nearby platform are in federal waters.

Elly began operating in 1980 in an area called the Beta Field. Oil pulled from beneath the ocean and processed by Elly is taken by the pipeline to Long Beach.

Huntington Beach resident David Rapchun said he's worried about the impact of the spill on the beaches where he grew up as well as the local economy.

“For the amount of oil these things produce I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Rapchun said. He questioned whether drilling for oil was a wise idea along some of Southern California’s most scenic beaches, noting the loss of the final day of the air show could deal a blow to the local economy.

“We need oil, but there’s always a question: Do we need it there?” he said.

The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.

In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.

The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales.

“The coastal areas off of Southern California are just really rich for wildlife, a key biodiversity hot spot,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.

The effects of an oil spill are wide-ranging, environmentalists said. Birds that get oil on their feathers can’t fly, can’t clean themselves and can’t monitor their own temperatures, Sakashita said. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures can have trouble breathing or die after swimming through oil or breathing in toxic fumes, she said.

“The oil spill just shows how dirty and dangerous oil drilling is and oil that gets into the water. It’s impossible to clean it up so it ends up washing up on our beaches and people come into contact with it and wildlife comes in contact with it,” she said. “It has long-lasting effects on the breeding and reproduction of animals. It’s really sad to see this broad swatch oiled.”

Associated Press reporters Felicia Fonseca in Phoenix and Julie Walker in New York contributed.

This story has been updated to correct the metric conversion in second paragraph to 572,807 liters, not 98,420 liters.

Pets blessed at church

Several pets attended church alongside their owners Sunday as part of the annual Pet Blessing Sunday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Pro-Cathedral.

The Very Rev. Katie Hargis said the pets remained calm through the service, almost as if they understood the significance of their surroundings. Her own mixed-breed rescue dog, Abby, sat patiently nearby as Hargis gave her sermon.

“I’m always amazed how the animals behave in church,” she said. “It’s fun to have animals in church.”

Church member Patrick Crawford of Hastings said St. Mark’s has opened its Pet Blessing Sunday service to animals for a couple years without incident. He brought his 3-year-old dog, Baxter, for the service.

The pet blessing has been a longstanding tradition celebrated on the Sunday closest to Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on the liturgical calendar.

Francis was a preacher and mystic in the 12th and 13th centuries who founded several religious orders and helped to reform the Christian Church through his example of living simply. He was known for his love of nature and is designated as the patron saint of animals and the environment.

Hargis said the unconditional love pets bestow upon their owners reflects the heart Jesus Christ has for His people.

“Our animals are a blessing to us,” she said. “It’s important we recognize that and we give them the blessing we can.”

Alan Witte of Hastings and his daughter, Bree, brought Briggs, their Australian shepherd/blue heeler mix, and new kitten Jasper.

Alan had to go home to bring the animals back for the blessing, but said it was worth the extra trip.

“They are an important part of our lives,” he said.

Music academy looks to unite community through arts experiences
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A new music academy program set to launch in October at First Presbyterian Church will expand access to the arts for community members of all ages by offering space, training, and support to enable those interested to share their love of music with others.

Hastings Community Music Academy will offer classes at the church in a portion of the nine-room Christian Education Wing formerly occupied by Pooh Corner Daycare Center, which has consolidated and expanded its operations at Grace United Methodist Church after nearly 50 years at First Presbyterian.

Hannah Jensen-Heitmann will direct the program. She first brought the idea to the pastor, the Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett, for consideration more than two years ago. Her vision is to unite the community through shared musical experiences made accessible to all.

Jensen-Heitmann is the daughter of Byron Jensen, Hastings College professor of music and Hastings Symphony Orchestra conductor. Her husband, Damen, is the associate pastor at FPC.

First offerings will include a guitar class for middle school aged students taught by Hastings Middle School music teacher Colin Sandell and a bell choir class taught by Byron Jensen, who directs the bell choir for the church.

“FPC has always had a good strong music program,” Allen-Pickett said. “We want to make sure anyone in the community who wants to participate in a music program can do so. We want to provide access to music for folks who in the past may not have had access due to socio-economic conditions or lack of opportunity.”

“My vision is essentially to create a community, a location where everybody, regardless of age or musical experience, vision is essentially to create a community where we can connect people through music,” Jensen-Heitmann said. “Truly, one of my greatest beliefs and truths in my life is that music is what connects all of us together as humanity and I want to have a little piece of sewing that in the community.”

The academy will operate separately from the church as a nonprofit organization led by its own board of directors, offering programs that will be mostly tuition-based. Scholarships will be available to those with financial difficulties to ensure all have access to the programs, Allen-Pickett said.

Plans are to make the academy an umbrella organization that facilitates and organizes a variety of community music groups both new and established, including the church’s hospice choir and Mexican folkloric dance troupe “Raices de mi Pueblo.”

Jensen-Heitmann envisions adding a number of diverse programs to accommodate the community’s multiple musical tastes and needs, including songwriting classes, master classes for high school band musicians, jazz or other musical ensembles, piano and vocal instruction, studio recording opportunities, drum circles, parent-child music classes and other offerings.

Through its many diversified programs, the academy will offer opportunities for those looking to reconnect with their musical past and those who have never felt talented enough to join in the song.

“Most people love music, but maybe don’t think that they are as musically inclined as they would want to be,” Allen-Pickett said. “ A place like this can offer a safe environment for people to just try it where maybe they thought they couldn’t before.”

Early feedback to last week’s announcement of the program through social media has been overwhelmingly positive, Jensen-Heitmann said. As word of the academy spreads, she’ll be looking to create opportunities for program expansion and community support for what she believes could become a noteworthy project for years to come.

“The possibilities for programming are limitless, and I am really relying on other creative people in the community to help facilitate ideas and get people involved,” she said. “I think this can really grow and become something really special.”

Information on the program, including enrollment options, is available by calling 402-519-4711, by email at musicacademydirector@gmail.com or on Facebook at Hastings Community Music Academy.

Nature walk highlights Prairie's Loft's annual Harvestfest

Midway through a nature walk Sunday afternoon at Prairie Loft’s Harvestfest, Josh Wiese helped identify and remove beggar’s tick weed seeds on 6-year-old Christian Conroy’s T-shirt.

Wiese, a habitat ecologist at the Crane Trust outside of Wood River, led a pair of nature walks during Harvestfest at the Prairie Loft Center for Outdoor and Agricultural Learning. He identified wildflowers, grasses and weeds along the way.

“Plants have been a passion of mine since I was little,” he said. “I liked watching kids be able to pick up on stuff and see them realize things they knew all along, but they didn’t contextualize yet. Just to watch them put those pieces of the puzzle together and see how connected ecology is is pretty special and it’s cool to be a part of that.”

He did a quick walk before Harvestfest started to see what was growing out there.

Christian Conroy got quite the education.

“My favorite part was just learning about the plants,” he said.

He was joined at Harvestfest by his parents Kyle and Kayla Conroy, and his 4-year-old brother, Archer. The family lives in Roseland.

“It’s always fun, and it’s so valuable for them to actually see the grasses, touch it, smell it,” Kayla Conroy said of her sons.

The Conroys have farms and dairies on respective sides of their family.

Kayla’s brother is a landscape architect.

“Lot’s of plants. Lots of wildlife,” she said.

The family enjoyed Harvestfest and Prairie Loft.

“It’s always so nice and so open,” Kayla said. “The weather’s always perfect, and it’s great to get the kids outdoors, show them the local vendors, show them the learning center in general.”

Wiese was joined Sunday at Prairie Loft by his children, Lillian, 9, and Judah, 8.

“I think it’s pretty awesome,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to see. They love seeing the tractors and the animals and going around to see the different venues. There’s a ton of room to play and walk around and stuff to climb on. Every kid wants that.”

He connected with Prairie Loft through Prairie Loft Executive Director Amy Sandeen.

Sandeen teaches a class at Hastings College encouraging students to disconnect from technology and reconnect with nature.

She brought her class to the Crane Trust to do some seed collecting. She asked Wiese if he wanted to be part of Harvestfest.

“I signed right up and thought it was really cool,” Wiese said.

The connection to the Crane Trust is a special one, Sandeen said.

“There are a lot of organizations in the area doing good work around land stewardship, agriculture and environment,” she said. “It’s important for all of us to cooperate and coordinate, so we can get more education out into the community.”

On a day that saw temperatures in the high 70s, Harvestfest brought in a big crowd.

“I’m thrilled,” Sandeen said. “Mother nature cooperated again this time. People are happy. We’ve got all ages. A lot of folks I don’t recognize, which is awesome.”

Families visited vendors, participated in farm-based activities and games, and pet farm animals.

Harvestfest drew just under 900 people on the day.

Another new activity this year was the corn not-a-maze, which included a keyhole-shaped pass through an adjacent cornfield. This is a space Prairie Loft has used for programming throughout the summer.

“A lot of our field trips will take a walk through the cornfield and look at the stalks and the ears and get that close-up experience,” Sandeen said. “We used it in the summer when plants were growing, so people coming back month to month would be able to see that growth. It’s one more teaching tool we can take advantage of here where we are.”

Musician Jim King returned, performing for families throughout the afternoon.

“He has the most positive vibe of just about anyone I know, and we’re all about the positive vibes,” Sandeen said. “I really want to encourage that kind of feeling and takeaway from our events. He just adds so much to that.”

Harvestfest is sponsored in part by Cooperative Producers Inc., Adams County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Berger Livestock, and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.

“The sponsors of this event allow us to welcome people with free admission, and that means a lot to all of us,” Sandeen said.