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South Coast Lawmakers Press Company Officials for Answers on Refugio Oil Spill

Few new details emerge during an oversight hearing in Santa Barbara, with Sen. Jackson telling a Plains rep, 'We expect and will demand better'

Patrick Hodgins, director of safety and security for Plains All American Pipeline, answers questions from local lawmakers about the Refugio oil spill during a joint meeting held Friday in Santa Barbara.
Patrick Hodgins, director of safety and security for Plains All American Pipeline, answers questions from local lawmakers about the Refugio oil spill during a joint meeting held Friday in Santa Barbara. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Lawmakers representing the South Coast pressed for answers on the Refugio oil spill on Friday afternoon, but got few answers as oil company officials gave no new details about the cause.

oil spill
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams lead Friday's hearing on the Refugio oil spill. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

A joint oversight hearing was held on Friday in Santa Barbara between the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Select Committee on the Refugio Oil Spill, with state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams conducting the hearing.

Jackson and Williams are each working on legislation in the wake of the spill, which occurred May 19 off Refugio State Beach.

Assemblyman Mark Stone of Santa Cruz and Monterrey counties was also on the dais.

The county's board hearing room was lined with local lawmakers, advocates and members of the public who heard from the oil company, county planners, industry experts and environmentalists about the scope of the spill, which has seen tar balls pop up as far south as Redondo Beach containing oil from the spill. A host of public speakers also addressed the lawmakers, asking for answers.

County Supervisor Janet Wolf welcomed the hearing and said the county will be pushing for more safeguards on this pipeline in the future, including automatic shut-off systems and robust monitoring and inspection programs.

"This hearing will not be the end of this effort," Williams said, adding that it wasn't exactly a beginning either but just the latest in a century of "tussles" between oil interests and local residents.

The attendance of Friday's meeting is "reflective of the concern," Jackson said. "We're here today because simply cleaning up the spill is not enough. We need information and we want answers."

Why it took so long for the spill to be reported to state and national response centers and why the corrosion of the pipeline was not detected earlier were key questions posed, but few answers were garnered.

Patrick Hodgins, director of safety and security for Plains All American Pipeline, ran through the timeline with the lawmakers that was released by Plains CEO Greg Armstrong earlier this week, beginning from the 11:30 a.m. report Plains employees got stating there was a leak.

"We all want to know the answers," he said. "We're just as shocked."

Hodgins said he hadn't known about the corrosion until he read it in the newspaper, a comment that surprised Jackson, who pressed the officials about why the company was shocked when they have a safety record of past corrosion problems.

The message from the two lawmakers was clear: Federal guidelines are not enough, and state and local requirements are the best safeguards for pipeline safety.

Jackson asked why automatic shut-off valves were not installed after Plains purchased the pipeline. 

oil spill
Members of the public pack into the county's board hearing room in Santa Barbara on Friday afternoon to hear from lawmakers, experts and company representatives about the Refugio oil spill. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Hodgins replied that none of the company's 18,000 miles of crude oil pipeline in the United States have automatic shut-off valves because they are not required to. 

Plains is still waiting on the results from a May 5 inline inspection done by federal regulators, which is now part of the investigation, and Hodgins stated repeatedly that he could not provide more information about past inspections.

This prompted Jackson to voice her frustration about the pipeline's past problems.

"Why do I know more about what caused this than you do?" she asked Hodgins.

Stone also asked about a prior report from three years ago revealed on the pipeline, and Hodgins said that it, too, has been turned over to the feds.

"It seems like you didn't come very well prepared to answer questions of what happened in that pipeline," Stone directed to the Plains rep.

At some point, lawmakers will know the cause of the spill, and in the meantime, apologies don't cut it, Jackson said, when the company has a history of corrosion, pump failures and other problems.

"We expect and will demand better," she said.

County planner Dianne Black went over the lawsuit that former owner Celeron levied against the county, which resulted in the pipeline falling under federal jurisdiction instead of local authority and thus not requiring automatic shut-off systems.

Those systems minimize impacts, she said, and could have reduced the amount of oil spilled in the Refugio incident.

That type of system is different than the remote response system Plains has now because "they don't require human action or decision-making," she said.

Black said she disagreed with Plains' assumption that the automatic shut-offs in pipelines could have unintended consequences, because every other pipeline in the county that transports crude oil has an automatic shut-off.

When asked how much it would cost to install the system, Black said she didn't know the exact cost.

"I can't imagine it'd be more than the cost of the spill," she added, to applause.

Tonya Hoover, California fire marshal, said her office regulates much of the state's pipelines, and confirmed that state oversight is more frequent and comprehensive than federal guidelines.

She confirmed that inspectors had been hired away for more money to go work for oil companies, leaving her office with an inadequate amount of staff.

Pipeline Safety Trust Executive Director Carl Weimer said the oil industry has seen an uptick in crude oil pipelines in the last decade across the nation, and that 80 percent of pipeline incidents were preventable.

The federal government doesn't have explicit safety standards, and other than the directive to companies to operate safe pipelines, it doesn't give much specific advice, he said.

"Too much of this is left up to the industry to decide standards instead of the regulators," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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.

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