Firm has spill his­tory

Since 2004, the pipe­line net­work owned by Plains has re­leased nearly 2 mil­lion gal­lons.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Jack Dolan and Julie Cart

Nearly two decades ago, Plains All Amer­i­can Pipe­line em­barked on a buy­ing spree across the United States and Canada, ac­quir­ing thou­sands of miles of aging pipe­line.

The pur­chases turned Plains into one of North Amer­ica’s big­gest en­ergy pipe­line com­pa­nies. But it also left the firm with a patch­work of pipes, some in need of cru­cial main­te­nance.

Me­chan­i­cal fail­ures on the com­pany’s net­work have con­trib­uted to more than a dozen spills that have re­leased nearly 2 mil­lion gal­lons of haz­ardous liq­uid in the U.S. and Canada since 2004. That does not in­clude more than 100,000 gal­lons of oil spilled along the Santa Bar­bara County coast on May 19, about 20,000 gal­lons of which went into the Pa­cific Ocean, prompt­ing a mas­sive and on­go­ing cleanup.

Sev­eral beaches have been closed since the spill. More than 100 birds and 58 mam­mals, in­clud­ing sea li­ons and dol­phins, have died from con­tact with the oil.

The spill oc­curred on a sec­tion of a 1,750-mile-long pipe­line built in 1987 that car­ries heavy crude from off­shore in the Pa­cific to the Gulf of Mex­ico in Texas. Plains bought it in 1998 at the start of its ac­qui­si­tion boom.

In pre­lim­i­nary find­ings re­leased this week, the Pipe­line and Haz­ardous Ma­te­ri­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra-

tion determined the sec­tion of pipe was se­verely cor­roded and had lost nearly half its wall thick­ness. One six-inch crack in a sec­tion of pipe had been re­paired re­peat­edly, of­fi­cials noted. A pre­cise cause for the spill has yet to be iden­ti­fied.

Reg­u­la­tors have cited cracked joints, failed screws, faulty pins and an un­der­sized stor­age tank as causes of pre­vi­ous spills that led to mil­lions of dol­lars in fines against the com­pany, ac­cord­ing to court records and reg­u­la­tory fil­ings.

Plains, a pub­licly traded com­pany that trans­ports oil from wells to re­finer­ies, has a mar­ket value of $18.8 bil­lion and op­er­ates roughly 18,000 miles of pipe­line in North Amer­ica.

“They bought a bunch of com­pa­nies with as­sets of vary­ing qual­ity,” said Michael Wara, a geo­chemist and an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of law at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity who spe­cial­izes in en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal law. “When you do that, you may not al­ways fully un­der­stand what you’re ac­quir­ing, and that cre­ates risk.”

Plains spokesman Roy Lamore­aux said the pre­vi­ous own­ers of the pipe­lines didn’t al­ways main­tain them dili­gently, and the process of bring­ing newly ac­quired lines up to Plains’ stan­dards of­ten takes years.

Many of the firms’ larger spills “oc­curred dur­ing the tran­si­tion pe­riod,” Lamore­aux said. But he re­jected the no­tion that the rapid ex­pan­sion was ex­ces­sively risky, say­ing the com­pany per­formed rig­or­ous “due dili­gence” be­fore each pur­chase and in­vested the nec­es­sary “catch-up cap­i­tal” to make the pipe­lines safe.

The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency sued the com­pany in 2010 for a se­ries of spills in Texas, Louisiana, Ok­la­homa and Kansas that dis­charged 273,420 gal­lons of crude.

In all, the com­pany was re­quired to pay $3.25 mil­lion in fines and spend $41 mil- lion to up­grade more than 10,000 miles of pipe.

The largest of the spills cited in the law­suit oc­curred in De­cem­ber 2004 in the tiny West Texas town of Iraan. The rup­ture, caused by a cracked weld joint, dis­charged roughly 189,000 gal­lons of oil. Some of that crude wound up in the nearby Pe­cos River, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

The sec­ond-largest spill, in the East Texas city of Longview, oc­curred a month later. A faulty pres­sure re­lief pin and an un­der­sized sec­ondary re­lief tank were blamed for dis­charg­ing about 50,000 gal­lons of oil, some of which reached the Sabine River, court doc­u­ments show.

Those spills came months af­ter Plains ex­ec­u­tives es­sen­tially dou­bled the size of the com­pany by pur­chas­ing an­other large pipe­line op­er­a­tor.

The EPA law­suit rep­re­sented the strong­est en­force­ment ac­tion fed­eral pipe­line reg­u­la­tors could take.

Within weeks of the fil­ing, the com­pany agreed to pay the fines and com­ply with a long list of safety re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing weekly aerial pa­trols of its pipe­lines to check for leaks.

Two more-re­cent spills by the com­pany’s Canadian sub­sidiary, Plains Mid­stream, cost the com­pany $1.2 mil­lion in com­bined fines from au­thor­i­ties.

The first oc­curred in 2011 near Lit­tle Buf­falo, Canada, when a 30-year-old weld failed on a pipe­line laid in 1966. Plains pur­chased that line in 2008.

The spill re­leased more than a mil­lion gal­lons of crude and be­came the sec­ond-largest in the prov­ince of Al­berta’s his­tory.

The oil f lowed into marsh­lands near the com­mu­nity of Lit­tle Buf­falo, where a beaver dam pre­vented it from go­ing far­ther. A per­sis­tent odor from the oil forced a nearby school to close for sev­eral days.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors found that, be­fore the spill, the com­pany’s leak de­tec­tion gauges pro­duced read­ings 20 times the level that would in­di­cate a prob­lem, but the op­er­a­tor failed to re­port the is­sue to his su­per­vi­sor and shut down the pipe­line. In­ves­ti­ga­tors noted that the com­pany had “few writ­ten poli­cies re­gard­ing leak de­tec­tion,” ac­cord­ing to court records.

The sec­ond spill, into the Red Deer River near Sun­dre, in 2012, oc­curred when heavy flood­ing caused the pipe­line to fail. Many res­i­dents were treated at a lo­cal hos­pi­tal for re­s­pi­ra­tory com­plaints. A recre­ational reser­voir down­stream from the spill closed for three weeks.

In that case, a re­port from the Al­berta En­ergy Reg­u­la­tor — the pro­vin­cial agency that over­sees the oil in­dus­try — found, among other things, that “Plains failed to com­plete in­spec­tions of the pipe­line at the re­quired fre­quency” that its own main­te­nance stan­dards out­lined. The reg­u­la­tor said the com­pany also failed to in­spect the pipe­line “an­nu­ally as re­quired by the [fed­eral] Pipe­line Rules,” and failed to take pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures to pre­vent flood dam­age, de­spite warn­ings from pro­vin­cial au­thor­i­ties.

Plains bought the Red Deer River line in 2006 as the com­pany moved to be­come a player in Canada’s fast­grow­ing oil and gas mar­ket.

Last year, an­other pipe the com­pany owns rup­tured in the At­wa­ter Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood of Los An­ge­les and sent oil shoot­ing more than 20 feet in the air. It rained down on a nearby strip club, coat­ing pa­trons and forc­ing the club’s evac­u­a­tion.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors determined that a set of screws hold­ing a valve in place failed, lead­ing to the re­lease of nearly 14,000 gal­lons of crude.

The mess took sev­eral days to clean up and caused more than $3 mil­lion in dam­age to nearby busi­nesses and roads, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Cal­i­for­nia state fire mar­shal.

Com­pa­nies con­trolled by Plains All Amer­i­can have in the last decade re­ported 229 less se­ri­ous safety and main­te­nance in­ci­dents on pipe­lines to fed­eral reg­u­la­tors.

Plains Pipe­line, the largest of the Plains op­er­a­tions, has re­ported 179 such in­ci­dents since 2006. Among more than 1,700 op­er­a­tors in­cluded in a data­base main­tained by the Pipe­line and Haz­ardous Ma­te­ri­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, only four re­ported more in­ci­dents than Plains.

The com­pany’s in­frac­tions in­volved pump fail­ure, equip­ment mal­func­tion, pipe­line cor­ro­sion and op­er­a­tor er­ror, records show. None of the in­ci­dents re­sulted in in­juries, but they caused more than $23 mil­lion in prop­erty dam­age — much of that to the com­pany’s own fa­cil­i­ties — and spilled more than 688,000 gal­lons of haz­ardous liq­uid, records show.

In the wake of the Santa Bar­bara County spill, the com­pany has is­sued daily email up­dates on its cleanup ef­forts.

“Plains deeply re­grets that this un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent oc­curred, and we are sorry for the re­sult­ing im­pact to the en­vi­ron­ment and wildlife, as well as for any dis­rup­tion caused to res­i­dents and vis­i­tors,” the com­pany has said re­peat­edly in news re­leases.

Main­tain­ing pipe­lines is not com­pli­cated, said Richard B. Kuprewicz, pres­i­dent of pipe­line con­sult­ing firm Ac­cu­facts Inc., based in Red­mond, Wash.

“In 40 years of in­ves­ti­gat­ing pipe­line in­ci­dents, I haven’t seen one that wasn’t pre­ventable,” Kuprewicz said. “There are no such things as ac­ci­dents.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

THE CLEANUP con­tin­ues of the May 19 rup­ture of an oil pipe­line in Santa Bar­bara County owned by Plains All Amer­i­can Pipe­line. More than 100 birds and 58 mam­mals have died from con­tact with the oil. Above, last month at Refu­gio State Beach.

Al Seib

MIKE ELIAS OF the Santa Bar­bara County Fire Depart­ment walks past where the oil pipe­line rup­tured. The break, which oc­curred along a sec­tion of a 1,750-mile-long pipe­line that was built in 1987, has re­sulted in the clo­sure of sev­eral beaches.

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