Feds find Santa Barbara pipeline operator violated safety requirements

A look at the Refugio spill and what goes into to preventing and cleaning up oil pipeline spills.


Line 901 wasn’t particularly old or long, as far as pipelines go. Built in 1987, the 11-mile crude oil pipeline, which runs from Las Flores’s outer continental shelf to refineries in Southern California, was a far cry from the expansive century-old pipelines that crisscross the American West. Moreover, it was inspected every five years — and surveyed by air each week. It seemed no one could have foreseen the massive rupture that would occur. But on a late May morning, an estimated 140,000 gallons of oil gushed from a fissure in the pipeline, hijacking culverts to flow into the waters of Refugio State Beach, in Santa Barbara County.

But a letter to the company, released by federal regulators last week, shows that perhaps such a disaster shouldn’t have come as a surprise. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates pipeline construction and operation, Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the spill, kept shoddy records on emergency training and how it would protect pristine coastline in the event of a break. Moreover, the Texas company had accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions on pipelines across the country since 2006 and incurred millions of dollars in civil penalties.

Those “probable violations” were uncovered during a PHMSA inspection that began nearly 20 months before the rupture in Santa Barbara. However, the agency says it cannot yet connect the inspection findings with the rupture, and thus has not imposed fines. 

Crewmembers continue to clean the California coastline to remove oil near Refugio State Beach
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley J. Johnson

Busted pipelines aren’t so much a matter of if, but rather when. Between January 2010 and May 2015, PHMSA documented the accidental release of some 168,000 barrels of crude oil across the country. In each of these situations, there’s a strict set of procedures that are followed — from regulation to response and cleanup.

Pipelines are regulated at both the federal and state level in California. Under PHMSA, onshore pipeline facility operators near navigable waters, public drinking water intakes or environmentally sensitive areas must submit a response plan identifying what pipelines can be expected to cause significant and substantial harm to environment. They must also determine the worst case spill — the largest volume discharge — possible in the event of a pipeline break. Results from PHMSA’s investigation released last week show that Plains All American’s plan for spills in sensitive environmental areas was insufficient. Response plans must detail how such a spill would be addressed, listing procedures and response resources, including what oil spill cleanup contractors they intend to use. An operator can submit a response plan to the state instead, if state law goes above and beyond the federal requirements.

Once a spill occurs, pipeline operators or employees must immediately notify local emergency response agencies and state responders. That allegedly didn’t happen during the Refugio spill. According to critics, operators waited 90 minutes after discovering the spill before notifying authorities. If they had, they would have gotten responders from the California Emergency Management Agency and State Warning Center sooner, as well as the National Response Center, since the spill exceeded federal reportable quantities. Early reporting can help keep spills from doing more damage; beating inland spills to the beach can help prevent marine impacts. The Refugio spill was a unique situation. “This one hit the beach first [via a culvert] and then went out into the ocean,” says Alexia Retallack, spokesperson for California’s spill prevention program, making a speedy response even more critical. 

Oil spills are notoriously expensive. That’s why the Department of Transportation requires companies to demonstrate they have the financial ability to clean up prior to operating a pipeline. In California, operators must have proof of insurance. Ideally, the responsible party will open their coffers right away, explains Retallack, thus cutting down on administrative and reimbursement costs. That’s what happened in the Refugio spill — thus far, Plains has spent nearly $100 million on the spill. But sometimes the government needs to respond more quickly — or the responsible party isn’t immediately identified. In those cases, the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency can tap into the multimillion dollar Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and coastal states can use financial reserves collected via a per barrel oil spill response tax. Later on, if the responsible parties are identified, the agencies will seek reimbursement and bill for their time.

Simply recouping costs isn’t always enough. Federal and state agencies can lay criminal and civil penalties if need be. In California, criminal penalties range from $5,000 to $250,000 per day for things like failing to notify the Office of Emergency Services, failing to begin cleanup, operating with an approved contingency plan or simply for causing a spill. Civil penalties range from $25,000 to $500,000 per intentional or negligent day per violation. Such fines could be imposed if federal and state investigations find the company did not follow regulated procedures.

Most large oil spills require a unified cleanup effort among federal, state, and local agencies, and the responsible party. For the Refugio spill, federal personnel from the EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Fish and Wildlife responded. They were joined by representatives from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Central Coastal Regional Water Quality board and a cultural and tribal liaison. Then there were the local agencies — Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, Emergency Management, and the City of Goleta. Plains All American provided the people and equipment to clean up the viscous oil that had settled and weathered on rocky cliffs, cobbles and boulders. How strictly they followed their response plan is still under investigation, but cleanup is entering its third phase. In the coming months, shoreline cleanup teams will survey for buried oil that has been uncovered through sand erosion, sample for oil throughout the Santa Barbara response area, and search for oil after large storms that may reveal previously unknown deposits.

“What happened in the Refugio spill really illustrates the issue we have in all of inland California,” Retallack says. “That pipeline, like many others, was only a quarter mile from the beach.”

Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

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