Seeking answers on oil spill
Three U.S. senators question a Texas firm’s ‘insufficient’ response to a pipeline failure in Santa Barbara County.
SANTA BARBARA — Three U.S. senators are raising concerns about a Texasbased company’s “insufficient” response to a pipeline failure that released thousands of gallons of crude into the ocean and fouled the Santa Barbara County coastline.
In a letter to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) questioned whether Plains All American Pipeline acted quickly enough in detecting and reporting the May 19 spill from its oil line near Refugio State Beach.
“We need answers about why this happened, why the response was insufficient and what can be done to prevent another tragic spill like this from happening in the future,” the senators wrote.
Plains Pipeline em- ployees detected “anomalies” in the 11-mile pipeline at 11:30 a.m., and confirmed the failure on-site at 1:30 p.m. They reported the spill to the National Response Center just before 3 p.m., according to the letter.
“Based on this timeline, we are concerned that Plains Pipeline may not have detected this spill or reported it to federal officials as quickly as possible, and that these delays could have exacerbated the extent of the damage to the environment,” the senators wrote. They asked why it took two hours for Plains Pipeline to visually confirm the existence of a release of oil.
The letter also expressed concern that the ruptured pipeline lacked an automatic shut-off valve that could have detected a loss in pressure and decreased the amount of oil released.
Among other requests, the senators asked for detailed information on the company’s oil spill response plans, the timeline of its response and the line’s inspection history. They also want to know whether federal regulators have legal authority to require the company to install automatic or remote shut-off valves on
the line as it is repaired.
The company defended its response to the spill in a statement provided to The Times on Thursday evening.
“In a real event, no one is fully satisfied with the speed of response,” said Meredith Matthews, a Plains Pipeline spokeswoman. “Upon confirming the release, we immediately activated our emergency response plan and marshaled critical resources to the scene, scaling up those resources quickly as we better understood the cleanup requirements.”
The company is conducting an internal review of its response, Matthews said.
A timeline provided by Plains Pipeline officials the day after the rupture indicated that the pipeline had been experiencing problems throughout the morning of May 19.
Mechanical problems at the Las Flores pumping station caused the pipeline to shut down at 10:45 a.m., Rick McMichael, the company’s director of pipeline operations, told reporters last week. The pumps were restarted at 10:55 a.m, but a different pump along the line went down at 11:15 a.m., he said.
An operator at a control center in Midland, Texas, shut down the pipeline again at 11:30 a.m. after detecting a drop in pressure, McMichael said. An “odor” was reported to the company at 12:30 p.m. and a company official confirmed the leak at 1:30 p.m.
At a news conference Thursday, held before the lawmakers’ letter was released, Plains Pipeline officials apologized for the spill.
“We will not leave until the job is completed,” said Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety and security with the company.
The lawmakers’ letter came as federal regulators announced that Plains Pipeline employees had removed the failed section of pipeline for testing following an excavation that took several days. The section of pipe — about 50 feet in length, according to the company — will be taken to an independent metallurgical laboratory in Ohio.
The pipeline released up to 101,000 gallons of crude, with an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil f lowing downhill from the spill site through a culvert, under the 101 Freeway and into the Pacific.
The pipeline, known as Line 901, transports crude oil from Las Flores to Gaviota and then to refineries throughout Southern California. It remains shut down while federal pipeline regulators investigate the cause of the failure, both on-site and at the company’s control room in Texas.
The spill has closed several miles of beaches on the Gaviota Coast while cleanup workers try to remove oil from the rocks, sand and the ocean surface. Officials said 18 oil-stricken birds and 10 marine mammals have died as a result of the spill.
The day after the oil spill Plains Pipeline officials said about 130 personnel were working on the response. By Thursday, nearly 1,200 workers were on scene, though not all were involved in the cleanup effort.
Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches will remain closed until at least June 18, said Eric Hjelstrom, state parks superintendent for the Santa Barbara area.
“We have no way of knowing exactly when this cleanup will end,” Hjelstrom said.
IT TOOK TWO HOURS for Plains Pipeline to visually confirm the existence of a release of oil. Above, workers pile bags of oil-soaked sand at Refugio State Beach.