PHMSA: Pipeline Operator Couldn’t Reach Staff at California Spill Site

July 2015, Vol.242, No. 7

Michael R. Blood

LOS ANGELES (AP) — As thousands of gallons of crude oil from a ruptured pipeline spread along the California coast, its operator was unable to contact workers near the break to get information required to alert federal emergency officials, records released Wednesday said.

Personnel for Plains All American Pipeline needed the precise location of the May 19 spill and an estimate of its size before notifying the National Response Center, a clearinghouse for reports of hazardous-material releases, according to federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration documents.

However, company workers at the site near Santa Barbara were contending with “immediate demands and distractions” and couldn’t be reached by Plains personnel based in Bakersfield, the documents said. One of the workers, along with firefighters, used shovels to try to construct a makeshift berm to slow the oil’s spread.

The Texas-based company has been criticized for how long it took to relay information to the federal government on the break estimated at up to 101,000 gallons, even though its internal planning documents repeatedly stress the importance of notifying the government of a leak as quickly as possible.

Under federal regulations, the company was to notify the National Response Center “at the earliest practicable moment.” State law requires immediate notification of a release or a threatened release.

A company employee confirmed the spill at 1:30 p.m., but it would be nearly 90 minutes before Plains Pipeline would contact the response center. By then, the federal response led by the Coast Guard was underway.

The records were released Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who last month asked the pipeline agency to answer questions about how the spill occurred and its aftermath. The spill fouled beaches and created a 9-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean.

The agency is investigating the cause of the break along a corroded section of pipe, which is part of a network that moves crude oil to inland refineries.

Though preliminary, the records provide a look inside the company trying to contend with what would become the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years, including periods of apparent confusion.

According to the agency records, company personnel in Bakersfield eventually determined the location of the break and provided a spill estimate of 21,000 gallons to the response center, even though at that time they had not spoken with the workers at the site. That figure was significantly below the actual release.

At one point, company workers drove along the pipeline searching for the source of the oil. After the spill was confirmed in the early afternoon, the personnel in Bakersfield began calling regulatory agencies, but it appears some of those calls duplicated notifications made by other agencies, the documents said.

The pipeline agency said it planned to issue an enforcement action against the company for “probable violations,” based on a review of operation and maintenance of the line that was completed in 2014.

The agency also disclosed that it had taken an enforcement action against Plains in 2013, after an inspection of control systems. At that time, the agency said it documented shoddy record-keeping and questions about training.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Plains had assured the government in filings that a break in the line was “extremely unlikely” and state-of-the-art monitoring could quickly detect possible leaks and alert operators.

Company calculations assumed it should take no more than 15 minutes to discover a release and shut down the flow.

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