A pipeline company responsible for spilling more than 120,000 gallons of oil on the California coast failed to prevent corrosion in its pipes, detect the rupture or respond swiftly as crude streamed toward the ocean, federal regulators said Thursday.
Plains All American Pipeline operators working remotely in Texas had turned off an alarm that would have signaled a leak and, unaware of the ongoing spill, restarted the hemorrhaging line along the Santa Barbara County coast, compounding the problem and delaying the shutdown, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in its final investigation report.
“A number of preventable errors led to this incident and the company’s failures in judgment, including inadequate assessment of this line, and faulty planning made matters worse,” said agency Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said. “What happened is completely unacceptable and we will hold the company accountable.”
The report was issued on the one-year anniversary of the spill and just two days after Plains was indicted in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on 46 criminal counts, including four felonies of polluting state waters and three dozen misdemeanors of harming wildlife.
Beaches and campgrounds along the scenic coast nearby were closed two weeks shy of Memorial Day weekend as an oil plume spread nine miles into the Pacific Ocean. They remained closed for weeks in the aftermath as tar balls washed ashore more than 100 miles away in Los Angeles County and more than 220 birds, such as pelicans, and nearly 140 marine mammals, mostly sea lions, died.
The agency previously said severe corrosion led to a 6-inch gash in the pipe. The final report said the company failed to follow up after an inspection in 2012 indicated the pipe had deteriorated to less than half its thickness.
Robert Bea, an engineering professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has read the report, said regulators had allowed Plains to ignore federal guidelines for at least nine years as the company underestimated the risks of a breach from corrosion and exceeded the maximum allowable pressure given the weaknesses in the pipe.
The report said the spill occurred just before 11 a.m. on May 19, 2015, when operators in the Midland, Texas, control room restarted a pump and oil surged at high pressure through the 2-foot-wide pipe known as Line 901.
“Pressure ultimately was the final nail in the coffin when the pipeline just said, ‘I give up,'” Bea said. “It was clearly run to failure.”
Within three minutes of restarting, pressure plunged to 199 psi, triggering a low-pressure alarm that quickly reset when pressure climbed just above 200 psi, the report said. The alarm was set to be tripped at such a low pressure that it never sounded again as oil flowed out the pipe at just above 200 psi.
A leak detection system that also would have sounded alarms had been disabled by an operator who was dealing with another problem. Failing to detect the leak, the controller even restarted the line after the spill occurred.
Houston-based Plains has apologized for the spill, but said it wouldn’t comment on the report because of ongoing investigations and pending lawsuits. It previously said the spill was an accident not a crime.
In addition to the state criminal charges, federal prosecutors are investigating the incident and the company could face fines for violating federal pipeline safety regulations.
Dominguez declined to discuss possible penalties Plains could face, but said her agency is focused on enforcement actions and would soon issue an industry advisory on lessons learned from the disaster.
The spill was the largest on the U.S. coast since the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. While the Plains spill was just a fraction of the size of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons, it happened on hallowed ground for environmentalists.
A blowout on an offshore rig in the Santa Barbara channel in 1969 blackened the shores and gave rise to the environmental movement.
“As we know, no community is immune,” said Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, who is working with lawmakers to pass a bill to improve pipeline safety. “And 46 years later, I found myself once again witnessing the devastation of an oil spill on the Central Coast.”
The leak was discovered after firefighters responding to reports of a petroleum stench found oil spilling from a ravine onto Refugio State Beach, a pristine and popular park for swimming and camping.
Multiple class-action lawsuits from landowners, fishermen and business owners who say the spill crippled a thriving tourism industry are still pending. Some investors have filed suit alleging they were misled about the integrity of company pipelines.
The report said the costs from the spill through the end of last year were estimated at $143 million, though the company reported in its annual report that it expects that figure to rise to $269 million.
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