Congresswoman Julia Brownley

Representing the 26th District of California

Turned-off alarm delayed response to Refugio oil spill, federal report says

May 20, 2016
In The News

WASHINGTON — An alarm that should have notified a Plains All American Pipeline operator of a rupture had been turned off, delaying the response to a devastating oil spill a year ago at Refugio State Beach, officials with the federal pipeline safety agency said Thursday.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration released its final investigative report on the causes of the Santa Barbara County incident, which on May 19, 2015, spilled more than 123,000 gallons of crude oil, about 21,000 gallons of which followed a culvert into the ocean. Oil and tarlike blobs from the incident also fouled beaches in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The company could face additional criminal or civil penalties, agency Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. 

"The operator failed on multiple levels to prevent, detect and respond to this incident," Dominguez said. "The company's failures in judgment ... and faulty planning made matters worse. ... We will hold the company accountable."

The rupture occurred at the same time a pump elsewhere in the pipeline shut down unexpectedly and an operator in the Midland, Texas, control room, dealing with the pump problem, ordered alarms that would have provided earlier notice of the breach turned off, the report states. That delayed shutdown of the pipeline. An outside caller informed the control room of the spill.

External corrosion that thinned the walls of the 24-inch pipe was the direct cause of the failure. The pipe carrying 135-degree oil had been inspected two weeks earlier, but a preliminary report from the vendor had not been completed. The rupture occurred 6 feet from where a corrosion anomaly had been repaired in 2012.

The company and employee James Buchanan were indicted Tuesday by a state grand jury on felony charges related to the discharge into state waters and misdemeanors related to slowness in reporting the incident to authorities. 

The company said in a statement it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to seek criminal charges for what it said was an accident. It noted that of the 46 counts, 10 were related to the spill or reporting requirements and 36 dealt with wildlife killed in the incident.

"Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident, and that criminal charges are unwarranted," it said. It said it had "directly or indirectly" spent more than $150 million on the cleanup effort and has fully cooperated with regulators.

In a statement Thursday on the final report's release, the Houston-based company said: "Plains is reviewing the Failure Investigation Report issued by PHMSA regarding the Line 901 release, which we received today. We do not intend to comment on the report at this time given the fact that there are ongoing investigations and pending litigation regarding the Line 901 accident."

Dominguez said a notice including lessons learned in the incident will be circulated to all pipeline operators across the country within the next few weeks. After that, the pipeline administration will review whether to refer the incident to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation or pursue civil penalties through the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General.

"This pipeline will not be allowed to operate until we are satisfied that all of its safety issues have been addressed," Dominguez said.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, in a call with reporters on Wednesday, talked about the incident and recalled how, as a young mother, she witnessed the impact of the 1969 oil spill off the same coast that led to the first Earth Day.

In a statement Thursday, she said: "In the year since the spill, we have made significant progress toward strengthening our nation's pipeline safety standards, including efforts in Congress to pass a critical update to federal pipeline safety standards. The release of today's report marks the next step in determining what actually happened so that we can fully understand what caused the failure, hold those responsible accountable for the harm done to the Central Coast community, and apply the lessons learned from the spill in federal safety standards. With millions of miles of pipeline operating around the country, the safety of communities across the country depends on it." 

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, said she planned to review the report and hoped measures like a pipeline safety bill she voted for in the House Transportation Committee can help prevent future spills.

"Our coastal environment is too fragile for catastrophes like what occurred at Refugio Beach to ever happen again," she said.

By Bartholomew Sullivan, USA TODAY NETWORK