Leaking California pipeline had no automatic shut-off valve

The pipeline that leaked hundreds of thousands of litres of oil on the California coast was the only pipe of its kind in the county not required to have an automatic shut-off valve because of a court fight nearly three decades ago, a county official said.

Only pipeline in Santa Barbara County without one after 1980s court ruling

Staff and volunteers work to clean oil off a brown pelican at the International Bird Rescue centre in San Pedro, Los Angeles, Calif. Crude petroleum gushed onto San Refugio State Beach and into the Pacific on Tuesday when an underground pipeline burst. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The pipeline that leaked hundreds of thousands of litres of oil on the California coast this week was the only pipe of its kind in the county not required to have an automatic shut-off valve because of a court fight nearly three decades ago, a county official said.

The original owner of the pipeline skirted the Santa Barbara County requirement by successfully arguing in court in the late 1980s that it should be subject to federal oversight because the pipeline is part of an interstate network, said Kevin Drude, deputy director of the county's energy and minerals division.

Auto shut-off valves are not required by federal regulators.

"It's the only major pipeline that doesn't have auto shut-off," Drude said Saturday. "For us, it's routine."

Plains All American Pipeline was still draining the pipe and trying to locate the leak Saturday. Federal regulators ordered the company to remove the damaged section and send it to a lab for tests on the metal, along with a series of other steps before it could resume pumping oil through the pipe to inland refineries.

Plains said the pipeline had one valve to shut it down if oil flowed in the opposite direction, and three valves controlled by operators in its Midland, Texas, control room.

Plains defended its people approach to manually shutting down the system, saying it's the standard across the country for liquid pipelines.

"It is much safer for operators who understand the operations of the pipeline to shut it down following a planned sequence of steps than for computer to automatically close a valve on oil that is travelling in confined space at high pressure," Patrick Hodgins, the company's senior director of safety, said Saturday. "This is all standard operating procedures within our industry."

While it's not known whether an auto shut-off valve would have detected the leak and reduced the size of the spill, environmentalists have criticized the lack of such a device, saying it could have averted or minimized the disaster.

"Everyone is pretty mystified why the pipeline didn't automatically shut down when the leak occurred," said Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center.

Santa Barbara County regulations sometimes exceed state and federal standards, requiring additional environmental analysis or imposing conditions to further protect health and the environment, Drude said. One additional requirement is a valve that can detect changes consistent with a leak and automatically shut down.

Pipeline recently inspected

The pipeline safety agency's corrective action order said the 17-kilometre line had recently been inspected, but the results weren't known. Tests of the 60-centimetre-diameter pipe in 2012 found 41 anomalies mostly due to external corrosion, frequently near welds, the agency said.

The company has said there were no previous problems with the pipe, adding it could take weeks or even months before investigators find what caused the disaster.
Birds covered in oil fly in front of an oil-drilling platform above an oil slick along the coast of Refugio State Beach in Goleta, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

There's no estimate to how much damage the spill caused, but a dead dolphin was found in Santa Barbara Harbour and three dead pelicans were recovered.

It's not clear whether the dolphin found in the harbour, about 32 kilometres from the source of the spill, died from exposure to oil, said veterinarian Michael Ziccardi.

Two sea lions, an elephant seal and six pelicans have been rescued, said Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

Pelicans scrubbed with toothbrushes

Workers wearing yellow protective suits, rubber gloves and face masks scrubbed pelicans with toothbrushes in a soapy bath at the International Bird Rescue in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles.

"Our goal is to get these birds stabilized, to get them warm, hydrated, comfortable and get them washed as soon as possible and then rehabilitated so they can go back home," Christine Fiorello with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network said in a video interview with The Associated Press.

Rough seas have made recovery efforts more difficult, and the light sheen of oil was becoming harder to skim off the surface, said Rick McMichael, a Plains representative.

Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate 28,600 kilometres of crude oil and natural gas pipelines across the country, according to federal regulators.

Since 2006, four subsidiaries of Plains All American have reported at least 223 accidents along their lines and been subject to 25 enforcement actions by federal regulators.

The company has defended its record, saying accidental releases have decreased as its pipelines have increased.


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