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Pipeline Company CEO Gives Timeline for Refugio Oil Spill Response

Lawmakers question why it took Plains All American employees 3½ hours to notify the National Response Center of the equipment failure

Bret Moxley of the Environmental Protection Agency speaks at a news conference Wednesday in front of a timeline outlining response of the Refugio Oil Spill.  Officials could not give more details on the hours surrounding the spill, but a letter from Plains CEO Greg Armstrong to lawmakers published Wednesday afternoon included more details.
Bret Moxley of the Environmental Protection Agency speaks at a news conference Wednesday in front of a timeline outlining response of the Refugio Oil Spill.  Officials could not give more details on the hours surrounding the spill, but a letter from Plains CEO Greg Armstrong to lawmakers published Wednesday afternoon included more details. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

It took Plains All American Pipeline employees two hours to visually confirm that oil was indeed spilling out of their own Line 901 last month, the discovery of which prompted one outmatched employee to fight the flow by making a makeshift berm with his shovel.

Those are just a few of the details listed in a letter sent from Plains CEO to several lawmakers probing for answers about the timeline on the day of the Refugio oil spill.

The spill dumped as much as 100,000 gallons into the Pacific Ocean and surrounding beaches last month, and a letter published Wednesday between Plains CEO Greg Armstrong and handful of legislators put some more clarity to the day's events.

Armstrong responded on June 19 to a letter sent on June 5 from U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Edward Markey and Rep. Lois Capps, which outlined questions that still remain for the oil company.

The California Attorney General's Office is one of the agencies investigating the pipeline rupture, and specific details about what Plains knew and when have been shrouded by the ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, Plains has spent almost $100 million in cleanup and response alone, according to company officials who spoke at a press conference Wednesday.  

That number does not include the amount Plains will have to pay for claims, penalties, court proceedings or lost revenues.

About 93 percent of the shoreline has met cleanup goals at this point, and El Capitan State Beach will reopen Friday. Refugio is closed as crews continue to clean oil from the bluffs and shoreline.

The letters that were published Wednesday outlined questions that had to do with Plains' response in the wake of the spill, and Armstrong wrote back that the company has a spill response plan that states the maximum detection and shutdown time for Line 901 is 15 minutes.  

That window of time was exceeded many times over, however, as employees struggled to identify where the spill was coming from.

The lawmakers referenced a corrective order from the oversight agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.

That order stated that Plains employees detected anomalies in the pipelines at 11:30 a.m. the day of the spill, discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m. and reported the incident to the National Response Center at 2:56 p.m.

Lawmakers wanted to know why it took 3½ hours to notify the center of the spill.

Armstrong responded that the company is providing PHMSA with a second-by-second accounting of what happened during that time and that it would be "premature and inappropriate to provide detail responses" about the timeline while the investigation is ongoing.

He did, however, provide a timeline of events from Unified Command that began when the Las Flores pump was remotely shut down by Plains Midland control room at 11:30 a.m., 12 minutes before the Santa Barbara County Fire Department received a 9-1-1 call reporting an odor.

Just after noon, State Parks staff were alerted to the 9-1-1 call and attempted to locate where the smell was coming from. State Parks and county fire staff met at Refugio State Beach and noticed a sheen on the water.

Ironically, at the same time, Plains representatives and employees from the county's Emergency Management and Fire departments were attending a previously scheduled spill drill at Freeport McMoran's Gaviota Station.

The timeline said that those company representatives were notified of oil on the beach just before 12:30 p.m.

At 12:43 p.m., the National Response Center received notification of the spill, and that shortly after that, company reps and county officials confirmed an oil sheen on the water.

Two Plains employees then left to ride the Line 901 right of way to determine if that was the source of the leak.

"It was not readily apparent from their vantage point near the beach that the oil had originated from Line 901," the timeline said, adding that the line is located uphill from the other side of the highway and oil was not seen running down the slope, highway or across the railroad tracks.

There was a culvert very near the point of release that was discovered later, where oil had traveled under the slope, highway and railroad tracks, the timeline stated.

It was not until about 1:30 p.m. that the company confirmed that the release originated from Line 901.  

The employees began calling Plain's Midland control center to confirm the spill and begin bringing in resources.

"One of the Plains employees attempted to build a makeshift berm with his shovel to prevent additional oil from getting to the culvert and was subsequently assisted in this effort by SBFD personnel," the timeline states.

Plains employees in Bakersfield also began to make notifications to regulatory agencies and several of the calls were duplicated, the timeline states.

To properly notify the National Response Center, Plains employees needed to have the location of the coordinates and an estimate of the volume of oil released.

"While the onsite Plains personnel were busy with the immediate demands and distractions associated with the response, the Plains personnel in the Bakersfield office were not able to reach the on-site employees to get a volume estimate," the report states, but were able to determine the location.

At 2:56 p.m., a Plains Pipeline Bakersfield employee called the NRC and formally notified it of the release, estimating the volume of the spill at 21,000 gallons.

"This contact was in addition to the initial contact received by the NRC at approximately 12:43 p.m." the report states.

The letter from Armstrong also confirms that on the day of the spill, the company saw both its Sisquoc and La Flores pumps shut down at 11:15 a.m. and about 11:30 a.m., respectively.

He also confirmed to lawmakers that Line 901 was not outfitted with an automatic shut-off sensor. The line instead had remote-controlled valves that allow liquid to flow in one direction but not the other.  

Federal guidelines don't require them to evaluate automatic shut-off valves for use, he said, and that installing one could cause "unintended consequences" if an unexpected closure occurred and could cause the line to rupture.

Armstrong also said the company doesn't expect to use automatic shut-off valves on Line 901 after the affected segment is replaced. In fact, the company does not have any automatic shut-off valves on any of the 17,800 miles of crude oil and natural gas pipelines it owns.

In a shorter, separate letter to Rep. Capps, Armstrong stated the company has taken another pipeline, Line 903, which carries crude north from Gaviota to Sisquoc, out of service following the Line 901 incident and that "we do not intend to place either Line 901 or Line 903 in service until the investigation is completed, and both Plains and PHMSA agree that the pipelines can be safely returned to service."

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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