By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A second stretch of Southern California shoreline has been closed after masses of tar balls washed ashore, and authorities said on Thursday they were looking into whether the sticky blobs were linked to a recent oil pipeline spill.
The shoreline closure in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, follows a similar problem last week on a 6-mile (10-km) stretch of beaches just to the north in the South Santa Monica Bay area.
Tar balls are a naturally occurring phenomenon on beaches in the region, but officials say the high numbers in recent days have raised questions about their origin.
The appearance of the sticky masses follows a May 19 pipeline rupture near Santa Barbara, about 120 miles (195 km) northwest of Long Beach, that dumped as many as 2,400 barrels of crude into the Pacific Ocean along a pristine stretch of coastline.
Beachgoers in Long Beach began stepping on tar balls on Wednesday and reported the problem to local officials, who swiftly closed a 4-mile (6.4-km) stretch of coast, said Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Jake Heflin.
Clean-up workers collected 55 gallons (208 liters) of oil on the shore from Wednesday to early Thursday morning, and the U.S. Coast Guard has collected samples to determine its origin, Heflin said.
"We’re dealing with an increase in the quantity that is making this distinctly different," Heflin said, without saying when the beach might reopen. "In light of the situation in Santa Barbara and the South Bay it raises everyone's awareness."
U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Andrea Anderson said her agency was looking into any possible links between the tar balls and the oil spill, but officials said no direct link had been established so far.
Last Wednesday, a large quantity of tar balls began washing ashore from El Segundo to Redondo Beach in the South Bay, leading officials to close area beaches until last Friday.
Anderson said the tar balls would be tested at a California Department of Fish and Wildlife laboratory and another one operated by the Coast Guard. No time frame has been given for completion of the tests.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)