Disastrous oil spill in Santa Barbara CA shows pipeline risk

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com)

Oil spill spreads near Santa Barbara; could happen in Bay Area

By Peter Fimrite, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 9:21 pm
The oil sheen and oil-soaked kelp befoul the ocean off the Southern California coast as cleanup continues. Photo: Brian Van Der Brug / McClatchy-Tribune News Service / Los Angeles Times
The oil sheen and oil-soaked kelp befoul the ocean off the Southern California coast as cleanup continues. Photo: Brian Van Der Brug / McClatchy-Tribune News Service / Los Angeles Times

The San Francisco Bay Area, like Santa Barbara, is home to a vast network of oil pipelines that could easily rupture and cause the same kind of disastrous spill that is blackening the Southern California coast.

A large pipeline next to Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County burst Tuesday and spewed up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil, and officials say much of it entered the Pacific Ocean, where it coated wildlife and prompted an emergency oil spill response.

It is the kind of disaster that local officials say could happen in the Bay Area, especially around the oil refineries in Richmond and Martinez, where petroleum is regularly transported between marine terminals and storage facilities along San Francisco Bay and the Carquinez Strait.

“Pipelines are everywhere throughout the East Bay complex, and where there are pipelines there is the possibility of a rupture,” said Ted Mar, the chief of the prevention branch of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “There are all sorts of different reasons a pipeline might fail.”

Cause still unknown

Investigators have not yet figured out why the 24-inch pipeline burst next to Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County. The oil bubbled up into a culvert, ran under Highway 101 and flowed through a storm drain into the ocean. The pipeline was shut off within a few hours of its discovery. By Wednesday afternoon, a 9-mile plume of oil could be seen from the road along the scenic stretch of coastline about 20 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara County health officials shut down Refugio State Beach, where the spill was concentrated, and officials said there was a strong petroleum smell.

“We are starting to get some oiled wildlife in our facility,” said Steve Gonzalez, the spokesman for the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, adding that the slick is spreading at a rate of 3 to 4 miles a day. “We don’t have any hard numbers, but we do have some oiled wildlife.”

Gonzalez said the pipeline was transporting crude from the Exxon Mobil plant inland to Bakersfield. The pipe, operated by Plains All American Pipeline LP, a Houston company, is called the Flores to Gaviota Pipeline.

Company efforts

“The culvert has been blocked so no additional oil is reaching the water,” the company said in a statement. “Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact.”

Most of the pipelines in the Bay Area are not large transmission lines pumping crude long distances like the one that ruptured at Refugio beach, Mar said. Still, a rupture could easily happen at one of the many underground pipes at petroleum companies on and around San Francisco Bay.

The last major pipeline disaster in the Bay Area was in 2004 when an underground 14-inch diameter pipe owned by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners ruptured, spewing 123,774 gallons of diesel fuel into Suisun Marsh, near Fairfield, sliming birds, fish and mammals and spoiling some 224 acres of wetlands. The pipeline was taken out after the spill.

Plains has a checkered history in California and around the country. The company was fined $1.3 million for Clean Water Act violations in March 2005 when 142,506 gallons of oil spilled into Pyramid Lake, part of the California Aqueduct 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The company, which was then called Pacific Pipeline Systems LLP, was forced to abandon 70 miles of pipeline that ruptured because of a landslide, according to Suzanne Skadowski, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The pipeline giant also paid at least $1.5 million for the April 2011 release of 1.2 million gallons of crude oil near a Cree community in northwest Alberta, the largest oil spill in Canada in more than three decades.

Alberta’s energy regulator issued a scathing report after that spill, accusing a subsidiary of the company of improperly inspecting welds, failing to backfill around the pipe and placing a higher priority on keeping the pipeline running than containing the leak.

Plains has three storage facilities in the Bay Area but no pipelines. Mar said most of the lines in the Bay Area are smaller pipes that connect the oil refineries in Richmond and Martinez to storage tanks and marine terminals. Their proximity to populated areas makes disaster a little less likely.

The long transmission pipelines “are the lines that carry the product long distances between regulated areas,” Mar said. “Those are the ones to worry about, because those are the ones away from people looking at them constantly. They can go quite a distance before someone realizes they are leaking.”

Odor was the tip-off

The ruptured pipeline in Santa Barbara was discovered only after authorities went to the beach to investigate reports of a foul smell.

The Santa Barbara coastline is also an oil-rich area, with rigs and drilling operations out in the ocean. It was on the same stretch of coast where hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled in 1969 after a blowout on an oil platform. That spill, the largest in U.S. history at the time, killed thousands of seabirds and marine mammals and was credited with starting the modern American environmental movement, which prompted major regulations against the oil industry.

“That region has a lengthy history. Its a high-producing area,” according to Mike Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis. “There are natural seeps there. We receive from 150 to 200 birds every year from there coated with oil that wasn’t from spills. It’s from natural seeps.”

Mar said cracks, valve malfunctions or other mishaps could easily happen in the Bay Area, especially during an earthquake, but “oil spills are more an exception than the rule.”

“When they happen, we need to respond quickly to protect the environment and California’s resources,” he said. “We are all stakeholders.”

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.