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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 1:24 pm | Fair 62º


Federal Regulators Determine External Pipeline Corrosion Caused Refugio Oil Spill

Preliminary investigation report finds Plains All American Pipeline's corrosion control system is not working in Santa Barbara County

Federal regulators from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration released a preliminary report into the Refugio Oil Spill investigation Wednesday. Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez, center, said external corrosion caused the spill.
Federal regulators from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration released a preliminary report into the Refugio Oil Spill investigation Wednesday. Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez, center, said external corrosion caused the spill.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

External corrosion was the cause of the Refugio Oil Spill, federal regulators said in a preliminary report on the investigation of the ruptured pipeline that leaked crude oil onto the shoreline of southern Santa Barbara County.

There is an extensive timeline in the preliminary report but no insights into what caused the corrosion, why the in-line inspection tools failed to recognize significant corrosion levels, or why the pipeline operated for another 35 minutes after the rupture happened.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration are investigating the “failure” that caused the May 19, 2015 spill near Refugio State Beach, during which a Plains All American Pipeline burst and spilled up to 142,800 gallons of crude oil onto the shoreline and into the ocean.

“Plains’ existing corrosion control system is not preventing external corrosion of the pipe under insulation,” according to the report.

Scroll down to read the full preliminary report from PHMSA.

PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez visited the spill site Wednesday and later spoke about the findings along with Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

The agency ordered Plains to shut down and purge the oil out of both of its Santa Barbara County pipelines due to concerns about corrosion, since the investigators at the rupture site found a wall thickness of 1/16 of an inch while recent inspections indicated it was much thicker. 

“This is an instance where the inspection tools miscalculated the corrosion,” Dominguez said.

When asked if this is a common occurrence with in-line inspection tools, Dominguez said the inspection tools are usually very thorough, but operators also get opportunities to get additional data with digs.

After the shutdowns, ExxonMobil, Venoco, Inc., and Freeport McMoRan stopped offshore oil production since there is no approved oil transportation system to replace the pipes. 

There is still no estimate on what kind of work has to be done for Plains to restart the pipelines.

The factors that led to the corrosion, and other critical pieces of the investigation, will be in the final report coming out in spring, Dominguez said.

PHMSA released the preliminary report as an effort to be more transparent in its operations, she said. The report was posted on the agency’s website after the Wednesday afternoon press conference at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. 

Capps said the spill had a “tremendous impact” on Santa Barbara County, economically and environmentally.

She called fossil fuels “dirty, expensive, dangerous” and said she is hoping to reauthorize pipeline safety legislation after the spill.

Preliminary findings in the report say the leak occurred between 10:55 and 10:56 a.m. and Plains shut down Line 901 about 35 minutes later because of problems at the Sisquoc Station on Line 903.

A petroleum smell was reported at 11:42 p.m. and Santa Barbara County Fire Department personnel along with a Plains representative found the culvert where oil crossed under Highway 101 to Refugio Beach.

“The Plains representative, along with Fire Department personnel, attempted to stop the flow of oil into the culvert,” the report says of the oil discovery.

“However, the culvert was too large to stop the flow with shovels and sand bags were not readily available so their efforts were unsuccessful. As soon as additional equipment and personnel arrived, the culvert was dammed so the oil was stopped from entering the culvert.”

Santa Barbara County released photographs of the corroded pipe section that show the gaping hole where it ruptured. 

Noozhawk managing 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 Preliminary Factual Report by Giana Magnoli

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