Feds: Pipeline company failed to detect California oil spill

The Associated Press

FILE – In this May 21, 2015, file photo, David Ledig, a national monument manager from the Bureau of Land Management, walks past rocks covered in oil at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif. Plains All American Pipeline said in a statement Tuesday, May 17, 2016, that a California grand jury has indicted the company and one of its employees in connection with the pipeline break. (AP Photo/Jae Hong, File) The Associated Press

By BRIAN MELLEY, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An oil pipeline company responsible for a massive spill on the California coast a year ago didn’t do enough to prevent corrosion and its operators didn’t detect and react to the spill quickly enough, federal regulators said Thursday.

Plains All American Pipeline also didn’t have adequate systems in place to signal there was a major leak in the pipeline running near the Santa Barbara County coast, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in its final investigation report.

The report was issued on the one-year anniversary of the 120,000 gallon spill and just two days after the company was indicted in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on dozens of criminal charges, including four felonies for polluting state waters and three dozen misdemeanors for harming wildlife.

Beaches 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 oil from the pipeline washed up 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 2-foot-wide pipe, but the final report goes into greater depth about failures to detect and prevent that corrosion and also operator error in recognizing the leak.

Plains, which remotely operated the pipeline from a control center in Midland, Texas, did not initially detect the spill after a series of pump failures and a severe drop in pressure on the pipeline eventually led to a shut down.

The agency said alarms that should have been triggered by changes in pressure didn’t sound to alert staff to a problem and the control room didn’t realize there was a leak. The controller even restarted the line after the spill occurred.

Houston-based Plains has apologized for the spill and said it was an accident that does not merit criminal charges.

The final report clears the way to determine whether the company violated federal pipeline safety regulations, which could lead to fines and other penalties.

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, which is frequently at odds with the oil industry’s presence throughout the area.

“The Santa Barbara community has dedicated itself to learning from that (1969) tragedy and working to ensure it does not happen again,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, said. “As we know, no community is immune. And 46 years later, I found myself once again witnessing the devastation of an oil spill on the Central Coast, this time at Refugio Beach.”

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.

Plains could still face federal criminal charges for the spill that is expected to cost the company $269 million, according to the company’s annual report.

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.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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