Pipeline that spilled oil on California coast badly corroded
By Michael R. Blood and Brian Melley, Associated Press, Wednesday, June 3, 2015 10:50 pm
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A pipeline rupture that spilled an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara last month occurred along a badly corroded section that had worn away to a fraction of an inch in thickness, federal regulators disclosed Wednesday.
The preliminary findings released by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration point to a possible cause of the May 19 spill that blackened popular beaches and created a 9-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean.
The agency said investigators found corrosion at the break site had degraded the pipe wall thickness to 1/16 of an inch, and that there was a 6-inch opening near the bottom of the pipe. Additionally, the report noted that the area that failed was close to three repairs made because of corrosion found in 2012 inspections.
The findings indicate 82 percent of the metal pipe wall had worn away.
“There is pipe that can survive 80 percent wall loss,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., which investigates pipeline incidents. “When you’re over 80 percent, there isn’t room for error at that level.”
The morning of the spill, operators in the company’s Houston control center detected mechanical issues and shut down pumps on the line. The pumps were restarted about 20 minutes later and then failed, prompting another shutdown of the line.
Restarting the pumps could have led to a rupture, or a break in the line could have caused the pumps to fail, but Kuprewicz cautioned it’s still too soon to determine what caused the failure.
In either case, a hole that size would have leaked at a high rate — even with the pumps off — and may not have been quickly detected by remote operators.
The agency documents said findings by metallurgists who examined the pipe wall thickness at the break site conflicted with the results of inspections conducted May 5 for operator Plains All American Pipeline. Those inspections pinpointed a 45 percent loss of wall thickness in the area of the pipe break, meaning they concluded the pipe was in far better condition.
Government inspectors “noted general external corrosion of the pipe body during field examination of the failed pipe segment,” the report said.
Investigators found “this thinning of the pipe wall is greater than the 45 percent metal loss which was indicated” by the recent Plains All American inspections.
The agency ordered the company to conduct additional research and possible repairs on the line, which has been shut down indefinitely.
Plains All American said in a regulatory filing that there is no timeline to restart the line, which runs along the coast north of Santa Barbara. A company spokeswoman said there’s no estimate yet of the cost of cleanup, which involves nearly 1,200 people.
The agency also ordered restrictions on a second stretch of pipeline, which the company had shut down May 19, restarted, then shut down again on Saturday.
That second line had similar insulation and welds to the line that spilled oil last month. It cannot be started until the company completes a series of steps, including testing.
The company said in a statement that it is committed to working with federal investigators “to understand the differences between these preliminary findings, to determine why the corrosion developed and to determine the cause of the incident.”
Plains said it won’t know the cause until the investigation, including the metallurgical analysis, is concluded.
The company has come under fire from California’s U.S. senators, who issued a statement last week calling the response to the spill insufficient and demanding the pipeline company explain what it did, and when, after firefighters discovered the leak from the company’s underground 24-inch pipe.
A commercial fisherman sued Plains in federal court Monday, alleging the environmental disaster would cause decades of harm to the shore. He is seeking class-action status and damages for business owners who have lost money because of the spill.
As of Tuesday, 36 sea lions, 9 dolphins and 87 birds in the area have died, officials said. Another 32 sea lions, 6 elephant seals and 58 birds were rescued and were being treated.
Popular state beaches and campgrounds polluted by the spill are closed until at least June 18.
Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate 17,800 miles of crude oil and natural gas pipelines across the country, according to federal regulators
The spill is also being investigated by federal, state and local prosecutors for possible violations of law.
Repost from CNN [Editor: One of the best reports I’ve seen. The video has spokespeople for environmental concerns and footage of protests. Unfortunately, CNN does not permit embedding – you will need to go to CNN and watch the commercial first. Grrr. – RS]
Santa Barbara oil spill: Authorities, environmentalists step up response
By Michael Martinez, Sara Sidner, and Faith Karimi, CNN, May 23, 2015
Santa Barbara, California (CNN) – Authorities have intensified their response to this week’s Santa Barbara oil spill by announcing remedies and additional investigations.
The California attorney general’s office is working with local prosecutors as well as state and federal agencies in investigating Tuesday’s spill that prompted a state-issued emergency in Santa Barbara County and the closing of two state beaches until June 4.
“California’s coastline is one of the state’s most precious natural treasures. This oil spill has scarred the scenic Santa Barbara coast, natural habitats and wildlife. My office is working closely with our state and federal partners on an investigation of this conduct to ensure we hold responsible parties accountable,” Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said.
The cause of the oil spill remains under investigation.
Oil company’s response
The oil firm, Plains All American Pipeline, has been actively participating in the cleanup and daily press conferences with federal and state officials.
“Our goal is zero (spills),” senior director Patrick Hodgins of Plains All American told reporters Friday. “Are we happy with this unfortunate event? Absolutely not.
“We’re going to be here until it is taken care of,” Hodgins added.
In a general statement Friday, the firm said it had “significantly increased” the size and spending of its safety program since 2008. The firm added that “releases from Plains pipelines have significantly decreased while throughput volume has increased since 2008.”
The firm had taken measures that “exceeded the federal regulatory requirement” for the Santa Barbara pipeline that eventually ruptured this week, and had inspected it two times in the past three years.
In fact, the pipeline was examined May 5, and investigators will be reviewing those results, officials said.
The coastal town of Goleta on Friday declared its own state of emergency, citing the spill as an “extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.”
Progress so far
As the cleanup entered its fourth day on Friday, vessels were “actually doing pretty well” recovering oil from the ocean, but “the harder part” will be cleaning the land — the shoreline, the beaches, the cliffs and the hillside near U.S. Highway 101 where the pipe ruptured, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams.
“It could take months,” she said.
Officials provided a tally Friday of the cleanup and environmental damage:
• 10,000 gallons of oily water removed from the ocean;
• 91 cubic yards of oily solids and 800 cubic yards of oily soil removed from beaches;
• 9.5 square miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline affected, from Arroyo Hondo beach to Refugio State Beach, near Goleta.
• Three brown pelicans were killed. Six more brown pelicans, two California sea lions and an elephant seal are being rehabilitated after oil coated them. A common dolphin was found dead without oil on its exterior, but it will be examined for signs of ingested oil.
On Friday, environmentalists declared the spill “a wake-up call” on continued oil development. They urged state and federal politicians to refuse additional oil projects, especially in Santa Barbara County, and called upon the nation to usher in a “post-oil era” by embracing renewable energy.
The activists noted that a 1969 spill in Santa Barbara was so catastrophic it ignited the environmental movement and a host of federal and state laws to protect the natural world.
The onshore pipeline behind this week’s Santa Barbara oil spill leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude on coastal lands and into the ocean, the oil company said.
At its worst, the smell burns your nostrils and gives you a little nagging headache.
Stones at Refugio State Beach lay splattered with a jet black tar, like goo, which can only be crude oil.
An industrial-size trash bin of oily vegetation sits next to the beach. Bikinis and surfboards on once pristine sandy shores have been replaced with people in hazmat suits, digging in the dirt and picking up oil-laden sticks and plants.
Among the worst violators
The underground oil pipeline was carrying 1,300 barrels an hour, below its maximum capacity of 2,000 barrels an hour, said Rick McMichael of Plains All American Pipeline.
Plains All American is among the worst violators listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration.
It surpassed all but four of more than 1,700 operators in safety and maintenance infractions, the federal agency said.
Hodgins suggested the comparison wasn’t fair because “we’re also much larger than those companies that we were compared to.”
“Most of the companies that we’re compared to have half the amount of pipelines” that Plains All American has, Hodgins said Friday. “So therefore, with double the number of miles of pipelines, unfortunately incidents have occurred, (and) the larger and the more of those can be realized.”
Most of the spills were caused by pipe corrosion, the EPA said.
The oil company agreed to pay a $3.25 million civil penalty and spend $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles (16,770 kilometers) of crude oil pipeline operated in the United States, the EPA said in 2010.
Lobsters killed, pelicans soaked in oil
Meanwhile, crews continued to clean beaches and coastal waters, and officials reported the leak killed an undisclosed number of lobsters, kelp bass and marine invertebrates. Six oil-soaked pelicans and one young sea lion were being rehabilitated.
As of Thursday night, vessels had skimmed 9,500 gallons of oily water from the ocean, McMichael said.
The cleanup could last months, officials said. For now, currents, tides and winds make the oil plume “a moving target” as it drifts offshore, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams.
Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline estimated up to 105,000 gallons may have spilled from a broken pipe, based on the typical flow rate of oil and the elevation of the pipeline.
Since the pipeline is underground, it will take a few days to determine how much crude oil was spilled, said McMichael, who estimated 21,000 gallons of crude had gone into the Pacific Ocean, with the rest spilled on land.
Not the first time
A spill in January 1969 became what was, at the time, the nation’s worst offshore oil disaster. Though this week’s spill is smaller, it still prompted California’s governor to declare a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.
The 1969 disaster was so catastrophic that it gave birth to an environmental movement, a host of regulations against the oil and gas industry, and a new commission to protect California’s coast, experts said.
Subsequent U.S. oil spills were much larger, including the Exxon Valdez accident, which dumped 11 million gallons off Alaska’s shores in 1989, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, which put 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
But the 1969 Santa Barbara spill energized a movement that led to new federal and state environmental laws and helped establish the first Earth Day the next year.
The environment remains a major concern around Refugio State Beach, which was desolate Thursday, as were its campgrounds, which are normally packed for Memorial Day weekend. The only sounds were the waves and the helicopter above, a buzzing reminder of the oily mess below.
By Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky, May 21, 2015 10:40pm
GOLETA, Santa Barbara County — The scene along the Santa Barbara County coast was horrific: An oil slick 6 inches deep blackened 800 square miles of seawater, 3,500 birds were dead, and 100 dead elephant seals and sea lions were found on a San Miguel Island beach.
It was 1969.
When oil spilled again this week, the outcome — and duration — was much different, largely because that man-made disaster 46 years ago changed everything, prompting the first Earth Day and giving rise to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Coastal Commission and the landmark California Environmental Quality Act.
Still, it reopened wounds left from that unprecedented disaster.
“I’ve just been thrust back almost 50 years,” said Robert Sollen, 93, a former award-winning reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press, referring to his coverage of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The deep water blowout of a Union Oil rig had spilled an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean over 11 days, but the oil giant downplayed the incident.
Fred Hartley, the president of Union Oil, refused to call it a disaster because human lives were not lost. “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds,” he said in 1969.
This week’s spill dumped as much as 105,000 gallons of crude oil over several hours out of an onshore pipe owned by Plains All-American Pipeline. The oil flowed into the water through a culvert, prompting an immediate and enormous unified response under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
State of emergency
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County as nearly 300 state and federal emergency workers and scientists raked oil off Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach. Five pelicans and a sea lion were rescued and were being treated.
“There will be serious repercussions and people demanding how this could happen,” Sollen said as a shiny opaque ring of oil collected on the beaches and along the surrounding cliffs at the high tide mark. “After 50 years, that’s as it should be.”
The situation is a reminder to Sollen and many other locals who witnessed the 1969 oil spill of how vulnerable Santa Barbara County is to disaster.
The Santa Barbara Channel sits on a thick block of sedimentary rock that holds down vast quantities of oil. There is so much oil, in fact, that it sometimes seeps naturally from the sea floor.
The area is consequently a highly valuable resource for the petroleum industry. In fact, the first offshore oil drilling in the world was built in 1896 off the southern coast of Santa Barbara County, just 6 miles from the site of the catastrophic spill 73 years later.
There was anger even then as ugly oil platforms and pollution began to spoil the dramatic natural scenery and unspoiled beaches. Vigilantes, led by a local newspaper publisher named Reginald Fernald, actually tore down an oil rig at Miramar Beach.
“The protests started in the late 1890s,” said Sollen, who wrote a book called “Ocean of Oil” about the oil boom in the area. “Of course they polluted like crazy, but there were no regulations in effect at that time.”
The horror to come
The oil boom continued despite public opposition and numerous small oil spills, including one in 1968 that dumped 2,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast, inflaming local opposition. Sollen said locals had long predicted and he had written about the potential for a large spill, but he was not prepared for the horror that he would soon witness.
At 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1969, pressurized natural gas and oil exploded out of a 3,500-foot-deep well as Union Oil attempted to extract a drilling pipe at a platform called Alpha.
‘It was in your face’
“It was the first of its kind on that scale, and it was in your face,” said Keith Clarke, a geography professor at UC Santa Barbara, who wrote a retrospective on the disaster in 2002 for a scientific convention. “There was no way to avoid it. It was right in front of a resort town.”
The dismissive statement from the Union Oil president and subsequent revelations that the oil company had gotten a waiver from the federal government allowing them not to use casing designed to prevent such a blowout prompted a national movement and inspired wholesale changes in policy and law.
“People stood there and cried,” said Bud Bottoms, an 87-year-old artist, activist and author who helped found a group called Get Oil Out, or GOO. “There was no sound. There were no waves. It was just flat with about 2 or 3 inches of oil coming to shore.”
Fired up the activists
GOO collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to ban offshore drilling and organized a campaign to send flasks of spilled oil to politicians. Local activists also formed a group called the Environmental Defense Center.
“People were so fueled up,” Bottoms said from his Santa Barbara living room. “We marched to the wharf that had been leased by the oil company and blocked the trucks from coming onto the dock. From there we started the publicity fight.”
A subsequent ballot initiative created the California Coastal Commission to regulate coastal areas. The California Environmental Quality Act soon followed, forcing developers and other land users to consider environmental impacts.
President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, mandating scrutiny of all federal projects, including drilling platforms and offshore oil leases, for environmental impacts before approval. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was formed.
First Earth Day
The Santa Barbara spill inspired then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to organize Earth Day, an annual celebration of the world ecosystem that continues to this day. The State Land Commission halted offshore drilling after the spill, but Ronald Reagan lifted the ban years later when he was president.
Despite all this, rows of drilling platforms can still be seen off Highway 101 between Ventura and Santa Barbara, features of the landscape that many locals still call “Reagan’s Christmas trees.”
The platforms, and the oil glut they represent, are a sign to many locals that oil drilling is not likely to cease anytime soon.
“The bottom line is that in spite of it all, we really only pay attention to this when there are large leaks and they occur in beautiful places,” Clarke said. “There is always a level of protection that we need that we don’t seem to be able to put in place. Meanwhile, oil and water still don’t mix.”
Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.