Safety measures ordered for failed oil pipeline in California

Measures include an in-depth analysis of factors contributing to the spill and a plan to fix any flaws.

Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency after over 100,000 gallons of oil spilled from an abandoned pipeline on the land near Refugio State Beach, spreading over about nine miles of beach within hours. Picture: AFP.

LOS ANGELES - Owners of an oil pipeline that burst in California this week must take numerous corrective measures, including an in-depth analysis of factors contributing to the spill and a plan to fix any flaws found, before they can restart the line, US safety officials said on Friday.

The corrective action order issued on Thursday by the US Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, or PHMSA, is not regarded as a disciplinary enforcement sanction against the company, Plains All American Pipeline LP, officials said.

But it requires a detailed and lengthy list of actions before the oil line resumes operations, starting with removal of the failed pipe for metallurgical and mechanical tests, purging the line of remaining petroleum and an independent review of inspection results, past and present.

It also mandates a "root-cause analysis" that explores not only the direct cause of the spill but "every contributing factor" that may have played a part, such as any safety compliance issues, said Linda Daugherty, a deputy associate administrator for the agency.

The order sets deadlines for some actions: 45 days to complete tests of the failed pipe segment, 60 days for the root-cause analysis and 90 days to submit a plan for remedying any problems.

No overall time frame was given for putting the pipeline back online, but Daugherty said she did "not anticipate a quick restart."

Word of the action came as Santa Barbara County's district attorney, Joyce Dudley, said she was consulting with federal and state prosecutors on the potential for bringing a criminal or civil case against the pipeline company.

The company declined to comment.

PHMSA generally issues corrective action orders for serious pipeline spills when there is no clear understanding of the cause, as is the case in California, Daugherty said.

According to the agency, an estimated 1,700 to 2,500 barrels of crude petroleum gushed onto San Refugio State Beach and into the Pacific Ocean about 32 kilometres west of Santa Barbara when the underground pipeline, which runs along a coastal highway, ruptured on Tuesday.

Plains has said that as much as a fifth of the spilled oil reached the ocean, leaving slicks that stretched for more than 9 miles along the coast.

San Refugio and another nearby state beach, El Capitan, have been closed indefinitely while crews work around the clock to clean up the spilled oil.

Based on the latest estimates, environmental activists and local officials say the spill was the largest to hit the ecologically sensitive shoreline northwest of Los Angeles since a massive 1969 blowout dumped up to 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel.

That disaster, which dwarfs Tuesday's accident, killed thousands of sea birds and other wildlife and helped spark the modern US environmental movement.

Executives for Plains have accepted responsibility for the latest spill, though they say they have not determined its cause.

They said the rupture was proceeded by a drop in pressure in the pipeline detected by control-room operators in Texas before the spill was reported.

The 24-inch-diameter line typically carries about 1,200 barrels of oil an hour from an Exxon Mobil Corp processing facility near Santa Barbara to a pumping station 10.6 miles away. From there, the oil is carried in a larger line north toward a distribution hub in Bakersfield, more than a hundred miles away.

The company said an internal inspection was conducted a few weeks ago but results were not yet back. Any immediate safety concerns turned up by the inspection should have already been brought to the company's attention, Daugherty said.

According to PHMSA, two previous such inspections, in 2007 and 2012, led to a total of 54 excavations of the pipeline for repairs, mostly due to external corrosion.

Plains defended its safety record in a statement on Friday, saying it had significantly increased maintenance and safety programs in both size and spending since 2008.