Pipe in oil spill was badly worn

Cor­ro­sion had eroded nearly half the line’s thick­ness at the site near Santa Bar­bara, a fed­eral report says.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Javier Pan­zar and Julie Cart

Cor­ro­sion had eaten away nearly half of the metal wall of a pipe­line that rup­tured and spilled up to 101,000 gallons of crude oil along the Santa Bar­bara coast last month, fed­eral reg­u­la­tors said Wed­nes­day.

The pre­lim­i­nary find­ings re­leased by the fed­eral Pipe­line and Haz­ardous Ma­te­ri­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­vide the first de­tails about the in­tegrity of the rup­tured pipe­line but do not point to a cause for the fail­ure.

Reg­u­la­tors said an in­spec­tion by third-party met­al­lur­gists re­vealed metal loss of greater than 45% of the pipe wall’s thick­ness in the area of the break.

That level of cor­ro­sion alone does not ex­plain why the pipe failed, said Richard B. Kuprewicz, a pipe­line in­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tor with 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence who is not in­volved in this in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He said ex­ter­nal cor­ro­sion is com­mon and can be man­aged by ad­her­ing to a rig­or­ous in­spec­tion and mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram.

“A 45% loss is not in it­self a prob­lem,” he said. “But a pru­dent op­er­a­tor has to stay ahead of this kind of thing. It’s called pipe­line in­tegrity man­age­ment.”

The 10.6-mile pipe­line had “ex­ten­sive” ex­ter­nal cor­ro­sion, and the thick­ness of the pipe’s wall where it broke had de­graded to an es­ti­mated one-six­teenth of an inch, the pipe­line agency said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors found a 6inch open­ing along the bot­tom of the pipe where it broke on May 19. About 21,000 gallons of crude oil spilled down a cul­vert and into the Pacific Ocean near Refu­gio State Beach.

The area where the pipe broke had been re­paired at least three times since the most re­cent com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­nal in­spec­tion, in July 2012, ac­cord­ing to the reg­u­la­tors’ find­ings.

Though the sec­tion that failed had lost nearly half of the wall’s thick­ness, other sec­tions of the pipe had ex­pe­ri­enced more ex­ten­sive losses.

In­spec­tors found ex­ter­nal cor­ro­sion and metal loss

rang­ing be­tween 54% and 74% of the wall’s orig­i­nal thick­ness at three other spots, reg­u­la­tors said.

“These trou­bling find­ings sug­gest this pipe­line was an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans pro­gram di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Diver­sity.

Plains All-Amer­i­can Pipe­line, which owns the pipe­line, con­ducted an in­ter­nal in­spec­tion of Line 901 two weeks be­fore the rup­ture but did not get pre­lim­i­nary re­sults back un­til days af­ter the spill.

It found that the wall of the pipe­line was thicker than what the out­side met­al­lur­gists found, but it was not clear by how much. Plains said it was work­ing with reg­u­la­tors to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ences in their find­ings and pin­point a cause of the rup­ture.

The failed pipe­line trans­ports crude oil from ExxonMo­bil’s stor­age tanks at its Las Flores Canyon fa­cil­ity to a pump sta­tion in Gaviota and op­er­ates at up to 120 de­grees Fahren­heit.

Kuprewicz, the in­spec­tor, said he was not sur­prised the line was cor­roded, given that the pipe op­er­ates at a high tem­per­a­ture and had a his­tory of re­pairs.

“Heated pipe is a bona fide risk threat. Ev­ery op­er­a­tor knows that,” he said. “It’s a heated line with a his­tory of past con­cerns — no sur­prise. It’s go­ing to be an ex­pen­sive fix.”

The find­ings were posted on­line as part of a larger cor­rec­tive ac­tion or­der sent to Plains All-Amer­i­can Pipe­line. It gives the com­pany 60 days to in­spect another pipe­line with sim­i­lar cor­ro­sion is­sues — Line 903 — that trans­ports crude oil 128 miles from Santa Bar­bara County to Kern County.

Line 903 is con­nected to the failed pipe­line and has shown nu­mer­ous signs of cor­ro­sion dur­ing three in­ter­nal in­spec­tions in 2013 and 2014. The fed­eral or­der called the cor­ro­sion data from the previous in­spec­tions “in­con­sis­tent” and called for a new re­view.

Plains spokes­woman Mered­ith Matthews said Wed­nes­day the com­pany would abide by the fed­eral or­der. The or­der does not re­quire Line 903 to stop op­er­at­ing, but Plains shut it down May 30.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Bar­bara) sent a let­ter Wed­nes­day to the chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee re­quest­ing an over­sight hear­ing in Santa Bar­bara to ex­am­ine the cause of the spill and the re­sponse.

Since the spill, 12,167 gallons of oily wa­ter have been re­cov­ered from the Pacific. Work­ers have re­moved more than 5,000 cu­bic yards of oil­con­tam­i­nated soil, sand and veg­e­ta­tion.

Re­sponse of­fi­cials said 87 birds and 53 ma­rine mam­mals have died. An ad­di­tional 58 live birds and 40 ma­rine mam­mals have been res­cued.

‘A 45% loss is not in it­self a prob­lem. But a pru­dent op­er­a­tor has to stay ahead of this kind of thing. It’s called pipe­line in­tegrity man­age­ment.’ — Richard B. Kuprewicz, pipe­line in­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tor not in­volved in the study

Al Seib

MIKE ELIASON of the Santa Bar­bara County Fire De­part­ment walks near the oil spill site a day af­ter the May 19 pipe­line rup­ture at Refu­gio State Beach. As much as 101,000 gallons of crude spilled, about 21,000 gallons of that f low­ing into the Pacific Ocean.

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