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Local News

Pipeline-Safety Questions Still Unanswered a Year After Refugio Oil Spill

Local officials await final report from federal agency that oversees pipelines

Workers clean oil off the shoreline at Refugio State Beach in the days immediately after a ruptured pipeline poured an estimated 140,000 gallons of crude onto the coast.
Workers clean oil off the shoreline at Refugio State Beach in the days immediately after a ruptured pipeline poured an estimated 140,000 gallons of crude onto the coast. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
Crude oil coats the cove at Refugio State Beach on May 19, 2015. Click to view larger
Crude oil coats the cove at Refugio State Beach on May 19, 2015. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Federal regulations and in-line inspections didn’t prevent the extensive corrosion that caused the Refugio Oil Spill, and though there’s been a lot of talk in the last year, no agencies have offered solutions to the issue of effectively detecting and acting on systemic corrosion for crude oil transportation pipelines.

Exactly one year ago, on May 19, 2015, a 24-inch pipeline ruptured on the mountain side of Highway 101 near Refugio State Beach, and up to 142,800 gallons of crude oil flowed down the hill, through a culvert under the highway, onto the beach and into the ocean.

The clean-up response covered beaches all over southern Santa Barbara County, and oil from the spill was found as far south as Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Hundreds of dead and injured birds and marine mammals were found during the response.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said it’s her priority to ensure lessons learned from last year’s spill are included in The Pipeline Safety Bill — HR 5050 — working its way through the House of Representatives.

The legislation is “by no means perfect” but is a step forward, she said.

It will push federal pipeline regulators to update their rules, including requirements to have automatic shut-off valves, she said.

The bipartisan bill includes provisions to study causes of corrosion and how to prevent it, modify the definition of high-consequence areas to include all coastal beaches, and ways to analyze risks that would warrant more frequent in-line inspections, said Eliot Crafton, Capps’ senior policy adviser.

HR 5050 passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in April.

A crude-oil pipeline owned and operated by Plains All American ruptured inland from Refugio State Beach. Click to view larger
A crude-oil pipeline owned and operated by Plains All American ruptured inland from Refugio State Beach. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo)

On Tuesday, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced a 46-count criminal indictment against the responsible company, Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline, which is accused of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters and violating Fish and Game Code.

At the same time a block away, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors ratified a state of local emergency for the 16th time.

The active clean-up phases of the spill response are finished, and agencies are now in the long-term monitoring phase, which includes sampling along to the coast to see if found oil can be traced to the spill.

As the responsible party, Plains has to pay for the response — $150 million so far, according to a statement — as well as claims regarding losses from the spill.

Santa Barbara County has received $1.9 million in claims from Plains so far, Dudley said.

The city of Santa Barbara is pursuing a claim against Plains for the spill’s impact on local tourism.

A rescue worker corrals an oiled seal pup in the days following the Refugio oil spill. The spill injured or killed hundreds of birds, marine mammals and other wildlife.
A rescue worker corrals an oiled seal pup in the days following the Refugio oil spill. The spill injured or killed hundreds of birds, marine mammals and other wildlife. (Noozhawk file photo)

“The negative news coverage has affected the city’s reputation as a world-class tourist destination, according to visitor-serving businesses and organizations,” the city said in the announcement last year. “At this time, damage estimates have not been quantified.” 

The city will file a $2.2 million interim claim on Thursday for lost taxes and revenues due to the spill, City Attorney Ariel Calonne said in a statement.

Investigations into the cause of the spill started within a few days, although federal regulators responsible for pipeline oversight have yet to release their final report.

A preliminary document from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration confirmed corrosion was the cause of the rupture, and determined that Plains’ corrosion-control system is not preventing pipe corrosion.

The report had 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.

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

Line 901 is a 10-mile pipe that transports oil from the Las Flores Canyon Processing Facility to Line 903, a 130-mile pipe that heads north through Santa Barbara County from Gaviota to Kern County.

After the shutdowns, the three companies with offshore oil platform production ceased operating since there is no approved oil-transportation system to replace the pipes.

ExxonMobil transferred about 200 employees out of the area, Freeport McMoRan employees sued Plains in a class-action suit after being laid off, and Venoco Inc. sued Plains for lost profits and partially blames the pipeline shutdown for its decision to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt.

The future of Santa Barbara County offshore oil production in the South County is in question as there is still no estimate for when – and if – the pipeline will be given the OK to restart operations.

PHMSA is overseeing Plains’ repair work and development of a restart plan.

“There is currently no timeline for the restart of Line 901 or the purged portion of Line 903,” Plains said in a statement. “The pipelines will not be restarted until Plains, PHMSA and other key stakeholders are confident that it is safe to do so.”

The Plains pipelines in Santa Barbara County could become a state-regulated intrastate pipeline instead of staying under federal jurisdiction.

Plains canceled its crude oil tariff with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has authority over interstate oil pipelines and the rates they charge for shipping oil.

That could change regulatory oversight.

When the spill occurred, Santa Barbara County regulators had no oversight over the pipeline safety and operations since Line 901 is qualified as an interstate line

Santa Barbara County “goes above and beyond” and requires applicants to have automatic shutdown as part of their computerized system, but Plains doesn't have one, according to county energy division staff. 

As Noozhawk reported last year, county energy staff don't even know what specific safety system is used by Plains, and will have to wait like everyone else for the PHMSA report with details about the system and how the spill occurred. 

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.

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