California pipeline spill came despite Texas firm's assurances

A Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years had assured authorities a break in the line was "extremely unlikely" and hi-tech monitoring could quickly detect leaks, documents show.

'Spills are still possible, though extremely unlikely': Plains All American Pipeline

An oil-covered cormorant flaps its wings on May 21 at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., where a pipeline operated by a Texas company ruptured, resulting in the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years. (AP file photo)

A Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years had assured the government that a break in the line, while possible, was "extremely unlikely" and state-of-the-art monitoring could quickly detect leaks and alert operators, documents show.

Nearly 1,200 pages of records, filed with state regulators by Plains All American Pipeline, detail a range of defenses the company established to guard against crude oil spills and, at the same time, prepare for the worst should a spill occur.

The company acknowledged the potential for oil to leak from the 60-centimetre, 17-kilometre pipeline west of Santa Barbara. However, a team of experts organized by the company assessed that risk as remote, according to the records, known as a spill response plan, and were released under the state's public records act.

"The pipeline and its operation are state-of-the-art," asserted the analysis submitted to the state. "Spills are still possible, though extremely unlikely."

Pipeline badly corroded

On May 19, a 15-centimetre breach along a badly corroded section of the line caused up to 382,300 liters of oil to spill, blackening beaches and creating 14.5-kilometre ocean slick. The breach and the environmental damage have challenged the company's conclusions about safe operation and rigorous monitoring.

Last year, federal regulators endorsed the plan but the company is facing questions about whether it followed its own blueprint, or whether it was outdated or inadequate. The analysis assessing the potential for a spill was initially conducted in 1994 and 1995, although sections have been modified as recently as last year.

Plains All American spokeswoman Meredith Matthews said it would be inappropriate to comment because of the current federal investigation.

Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the plan's list of endangered species is at least 20 years outdated and the company fell short in following through with its requirements. "It grossly understates the potential for an oil spill," Monsell said.

Members of Congress also want answers.

"We need to find out if the company lived up to the promises of its oil spill response plan," Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said in a statement. "I'm concerned that they may not have moved quickly enough to detect and report the spill, which could have exacerbated the environmental damage."

Corrosion safeguards

The cause of the break has not been determined. But preliminary information released by federal regulators suggests that corrosion was the culprit.

Plains All American took a series of steps to ward off corrosion — the pipeline was treated with a urethane coating, as well as covered with foam insulation and an outer wrap. It was also shielded by what is known as cathodic protection, a low-level electric current that is run through the pipeline to inhibit corrosion.

An analysis concluded that the potential for a leak due to corrosion was "adequately mitigated."

Yet documents released by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration after the spill said testing conducted in early May found extensive external corrosion in some areas, although Plains said it had not received those results prior to the spill.

Additionally, federal inspectors said the area near the break had earlier been repaired because of corrosion. At the break point, over 80 percent of the wall thickness of the pipeline had been eaten away.

In 2010, the company agreed to spend over $40 million to prevent corrosion and improve leak detection on its pipelines as part of a settlement with federal officials, stemming from spills in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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