Monday, May 25, 2015

Oil Spill in Santa Barbara, CA

On Tuesday, May 19th 2015 a section of the 11-mile long 24 inch in diameter oil pipeline that runs along the California coast 30 miles north of Santa Barbara ruptured and released up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil within Santa Barbara County. The leak occurred in a pipe that was carrying crude oil from a facility on the shore to refineries further down the chain of production. Some of the oil spilled into a culvert running under a highway and into a storm drain that emptied into the ocean. It was estimated that at least 21,000 of gallons of crude oil were released into the ocean.

Rick McMichael, director of pipeline operations for  for the owner, Plains All American Pipeline, said at a news conference that problems began about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday at two pump stations. The spill reportedly happened after a series of mechanical problems caused the line to be shut down. The size of the release was estimated based on the pipeline’s average flow rate and elevation. The line was manually shut down by 11:30 a.m. after company workers noticed pressure abnormalities, company officials said. But the rupture was not confirmed visually until two hours later, when a company employee went to the site to inspect a report of an odor.

Plains All American Pipeline provides storage and transport for crude oil, refined products, NGL and natural gas, as well as NGL fractionation, and natural gas and condensate processing services. They have approximately 17,800 miles of active pipelines consisting primarily of crude oil, NGL and natural gas pipelines. An analysis by the LA Times of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration showed Plains All American’s rate of incidents per mile of pipe is more than three times the national average.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that Plains All American Pipeline division was found in violation of federal environmental regulations 10 times between 2004 and 2007, when about 273,420 gallons of crude oil were released into waters or the shorelines in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas,. Most of these spills were caused by pipeline corrosion according to the EPA.

In their settlement with the EPA in 2010, Plains All American agreed to pay a $3.25 million civil penalty and spend $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles of crude oil pipeline operated in the United States. As part of the agreement, Plains All American must take steps to replace or install corrosion control equipment, perform pipeline inspections, assess the integrity of newly acquired pipelines, improve leak detection practices and capabilities, and provide proper training for personnel.

According to the company, Plaines All American has more than doubled its safety staff since 2008 and increased spending on maintenance from $50 million in 2008 to more than $300 million last year. That may be a reflection of the amount of delayed maintenance and age of their infrastructure rather than a safe and renewed system of pipelines.

Plains All American performed an integrity check on the line two weeks ago, but results had not yet been analyzed before Tuesday’s rupture. The last inspection of this pipeline was in 2012, according to the company. Federal regulators from the Department of Transportation, which oversees oil pipeline safety, will be investigation the leak's cause, the pipe's condition and the potential regulatory violations. Their investigation begins with the excavation of the pipeline and will include analysis of the integrity check and should offer a terrific opportunity to look at pipeline condition just before a spill. The integrity check involves running a device through the pipeline to measure and record irregularities and pipe condition.The pipeline will remain shut down until the cause of the spill is determined and the entire length of the 11 mile pipeline is checked.

Despite an initial cleanup effort last week of 350 spill responders and three skimmer vessels very little oil was recovered during the week. The oil slick grew from nine miles long on Wednesday to 12 miles on Friday. An addition 300 spill responders and 15 oil simmers arrived over the weekend. The choppy waters along the Santa Barbara coast interfered with the booms on the oil skimmers.

Dead invertebrates including octopuses, lobsters and jellyfish washed up on shore along with fish, dead birds and a dead dolphin. In addition, sea lions, seals, pelicans were found covered with oil and were rescued. Though this is a relatively small environmental “incident” compared to the historic Santa Barbara spill in 1969 when a “blowout” released more than 3 million gallons of crude oil, the beautiful coast along the Santa Barbara Channel is easily impacted.

To measure the long term impact several students and professors from Cal State Channel Islands department of environmental science and resource management went out last Wednesday morning right after the spill. They had secured permission to make scientific measurements, driving stainless steel cylinders a couple of feet into the sand to gauge the number of sand crabs and other tiny creatures living in it before any oil washes ashore. The sampling will be repeated in June and chronicle any difference they might find.

Though Federal regulators from the Department of Transportation will determine the cause of this incident, it seems likely time and the failure to maintain, replace and improve our infrastructure over time. The pipeline has variously been reported to be between 24-28 years old. There are inadequate regulations to ensure regular (or any) engineering inspections documenting the condition of pipelines and determining when equipment should be replaced.

 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate pipelines; the regulations for secondary containment and spill prevention are inadequate. In addition, there are no regulations that limit the maximum life that equipment can continue to be used. Though the occurrences of pipeline failures are rare, the consequences are significant and more investment should be made in preventing a failure. To the public replacement of a pipeline prematurely is preferable to waiting for pipelines to fail.However, clearly, companies like Plains All American would rather pay penalties and fines than the costs of capital expenditures and operation and maintenance expense necessary to absolutely control spills. Pipelines are the safest form of transportation for crude oil and gas. We need to ensure that our pipeline are the safest they can be. Our problem is not new pipelines, it is old pipelines.  

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