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Investigation Finds Ruptured Pipeline in Refugio Oil Spill Was Extensively Corroded

Federal agency reports the pipe’s wall thickness had eroded to 1/16 of an inch and that results from a recent inspection showed corrosion at other sites

An aerial photo shows the section of pipeline that ruptured on May 19, sending thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean at Refugio State Beach. Federal officials announced Wednessday that a preliminary examination showed extensive corrosion in the section of pipe.
An aerial photo shows the section of pipeline that ruptured on May 19, sending thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean at Refugio State Beach. Federal officials announced Wednessday that a preliminary examination showed extensive corrosion in the section of pipe. (John Wiley photo)

The portion of the Plains All American Pipeline crude oil line that ruptured causing the May 19 oil spill near Refugio State Beach was extensively corroded, according to the federal regulatory agency investigating the cause of the spill.

On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an amended corrective order that gives new details into the condition of the failed Plains pipeline.

Experts in the field estimated that corrosion at the failure site had degraded the pipe’s wall thickness to 1/16 of an inch and results from a recent inspection show corrosion at other sites as well.

It’s a 24-inch pipeline that carries crude oil from offshore oil platforms in southern Santa Barbara County and the May 5 In-Line Inspection conducted by Plains found that the failed pipe section had lost 45 percent of its original wall thickness, according to PHMSA. 

The inspection found four areas with “pipe anomalies” and there was extensive corrosion on the outside of the pipe in the three areas investigated so far, according to PHMSA. The metal loss ranged between 54 percent and 74 percent of the original pipe wall thickness.

At the “failure site” north of Highway 101 near Refugio State Beach, the rupture indicates a 6-inch opening in the bottom quadrant of the pipe. 

In regards to the estimated 1/16-inch thickness at the failed pipe, “This thinning of the pipe wall is greater than the 45 percent metal loss which was indicated by the recent ILI (In-Line Inspection) survey,” according to the report by PHMSA. 

There were three repairs done in the area of the failed pipeline, due to external corrosion, after a 2012 In-Line Inspection.

To prevent external corrosion, Plains uses an impressed current cathodic protection system and levels measured during the pipe excavation were adequate, wrote Jeffrey Wiese, PHMSA’s associate administrator for pipeline safety.

“External corrosion with CP at this level would not be expected,” he wrote.

The Plains-owned Line 903, which runs from the Gaviota pump station north through the Sisquoc pump station and then into Kern County, is now under the same scrutiny as the ruptured pipeline.

A worker paints a portion of the replacement pipe at the site of the ruptured portion that was the source of the Refugio oil spill. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

In the new order issued by PHMSA, Plains will have to submit documents of the pipeline’s inspection results for the last 10 years and identify all areas that have the same insulated pipe and girth welds and shrink-wrap sleeves as the failed pipeline.

Results from 2013 and 2014 inspections of the pipeline “appear to be inconsistent, requiring immediate review and analysis,” Wiese wrote.

There will be careful monitoring of the entire 130-mile pipeline, as well as the 10.6-mile ruptured line, while Plains is subject to this corrective action order.

Scroll down to read the amended corrective action order issued June 3.  

The agency issued a corrective action order to Plains on May 21, requiring the company to shut down the pipe immediately and submit an analysis report of the cause of the spill. Plains had to follow a PHMSA-approved work plan to remove the piece of ruptured pipe that’s being tested, and has to submit a startup plan before it starts operating the pipeline again. 

Plains had already stopped operating Line 903, the pipeline unaffected by the spill, before Wednesday's shutdown order. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Plains noted that PHMSA said the company had an adequate level of cathodic protection on the pipe and that the recent inspection of the line indicated the pipeline wall was thicker than what the third-party metallurgist saw in the area of the rupture.

“Plains is committed to working with PHMSA to understand the differences between these preliminary findings, to determine why the corrosion developed and to determine the cause of the incident,” the company said in a statement.

“Within the amended corrected action order, PHMSA has characterized the failure of Line 901 as a “rupture” and noted that external corrosion is apparent at the failure site.  While there is visual evidence of external corrosion at the failure site, Plains will not know the true physical and chemical characteristics of the failure or the apparent corrosion until the ongoing investigation, including the metallurgical analysis, is completed.”

As of Wednesday, there were still more than 1,000 people involved in the oil spill response effort, including boat and shoreline cleanup crews in multiple counties. Two state beaches are still closed, and there is an active fishery closure. In addition to the obvious environmental impacts to oiled beaches, wildlife rescue teams have reported dozens of dead birds and mammals after the spill. 

The ruptured 10.6-mile line owned by Plains All American Pipeline transports crude oil — a viscous liquid that people have compared to molasses or peanut butter — from offshore oil production platforms to refineries in other counties. It carries processed crude from ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon facility and Venoco, Inc.’s Ellwood Onshore Facility toward the Gaviota pump station.

From there, a 30-inch line picks up oil from the Freeport-McMoRan Inc. oil platforms at Point Arguello and heads north, past the Sisquoc pump station and into San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. 

In addition to the environmental and financial impacts to southern Santa Barbara County, the spill caused Venoco and Freeport to stop operations from the nearby offshore platforms — they’re shut in since the entire Plains line has been shut down, according to county energy division staff.

ExxonMobil is still producing, since it has more storage on site at Las Flores Canyon. 

Plains has a spotty safety record nationally and has been officially ordered to continue the clean-up efforts and to shut down its pipelines in Santa Barbara County until PHMSA gives the company approval to restart operations. 

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Plains All American Pipeline Line 901 Excavation Site in Santa Barbara County from Noozhawk on Vimeo.

PHMSA Amended Corrective Action Order for Plains All American Pipeline Regarding Refugio Oil Spill in Santa...

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