PHMSA: Pipeline Company Failed to Detect California Oil Spill

May 2016, Vol. 243, No. 5

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An oil pipeline company responsible for a massive spill on the California coast a year ago didn’t do enough to prevent corrosion and its operators didn’t detect and react to the spill quickly enough, federal regulators said Thursday.

Plains All American Pipeline also didn’t have adequate systems in place to signal there was a major leak in the pipeline running near the Santa Barbara County coast, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in its final investigation report.

PHMSA’s Failure Investigation Report identifies the direct cause of the failure as external corrosion. The investigation found that several factors contributed to the severity of the release, including the company’s failure to protect the pipeline from corrosion, and the company’s failure to detect and respond to the pipeline rupture once it occurred.  At the time of the release, Plains operated Lines 901 and 903 as interstate pipelines, subject to PHMSA regulatory, inspection and enforcement jurisdiction.

“PHMSA’s investigation reveals that a number of preventable errors led to this incident, and that the company’s failures in judgment, including inadequate assessment of the safety of this line and faulty planning made matters worse,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Millions of dollars have been spent to repair the substantial damage caused to the environment from this spill.  It is completely unacceptable, and we will hold the company accountable for its actions.”

The agency previously said severe corrosion led to a 6-inch gash in the 2-foot-wide pipe, but the final report goes into greater depth about failures to detect and prevent that corrosion and also operator error in recognizing the leak.

Plains, which remotely operated the pipeline from a control center in Midland, Texas, did not initially detect the spill after a series of pump failures and a severe drop in pressure on the pipeline eventually led to a shut down.

The agency said alarms that should have been triggered by changes in pressure didn’t sound to alert staff to a problem and the control room didn’t realize there was a leak. The controller even restarted the line after the spill occurred.

Houston-based Plains has apologized for the spill and said it was an accident that does not merit criminal charges.

The final report clears the way to determine whether the company violated federal pipeline safety regulations, which could lead to fines and other penalties.

The spill was the largest on the U.S. coast since the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. While the Plains spill was just a fraction of the size of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons, it happened on hallowed ground for environmentalists.

A blowout on an offshore rig in the Santa Barbara channel in 1969 blackened the shores and gave rise to the environmental movement, which is frequently at odds with the oil industry’s presence throughout the area.

“The Santa Barbara community has dedicated itself to learning from that (1969) tragedy and working to ensure it does not happen again,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, said. “As we know, no community is immune. And 46 years later, I found myself once again witnessing the devastation of an oil spill on the Central Coast, this time at Refugio Beach.”

The leak was discovered after firefighters responding to reports of a petroleum stench found oil spilling from a ravine onto Refugio State Beach, a pristine and popular park for swimming and camping.

Plains could still face federal criminal charges for the spill that is expected to cost the company $269 million, according to the company’s annual report.

Multiple class-action lawsuits from landowners, fishermen and business owners who say the spill crippled a thriving tourism industry are still pending. Some investors have filed suit alleging they were misled about the integrity of company pipelines.

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