Senators call Santa Barbara oil spill response 'insufficient'

3 senators want to know why the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred, what will stop such tragedies in the future

Three U.S. senators are raising concerns about a Texas-based company’s “insufficient” response to a pipeline failure last week that released thousands of gallons of crude into the ocean and fouled the Santa Barbara County coastline.

In a letter Thursday to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) questioned whether Plains All American Pipeline acted quickly enough in detecting and reporting the May 19 spill from its oil line near Refugio State Beach.

“We need answers about why this happened, why the response was insufficient and what can be done to prevent another tragic spill like this from happening in the future,” the senators wrote.

Plains Pipeline employees detected “anomalies” in the 11-mile pipeline at 11:30 a.m., and confirmed the failure on-site at 1:30 p.m. They reported the spill to the National Response Center just before 3 p.m., according to the letter.

“Based on this timeline, we are concerned that Plains Pipeline may not have detected this spill or reported it to federal officials as quickly as possible, and that these delays could have exacerbated the extent of the damage to the environment,” the senators wrote. They asked why it took two hours for Plains Pipeline to visually confirm the existence of a release of oil.

The letter also expressed concern that the ruptured pipeline lacked an automatic shutoff valve that could have detected a loss in pressure and decreased the amount of oil released.

Among other requests, the senators asked for detailed information on the company’s oil spill response plans, the timeline of its response and the line’s inspection history. They also want to know whether federal regulators have legal authority to require the company to install automatic or remote shutoff valves on the line as it is repaired.

The company defended its response to the spill in a statement provided to The Times on Thursday evening.

"In a real event, no one is fully satisfied with the speed of response," said Meredith Matthews, a Plains Pipeline spokeswoman. "Upon confirming the release, we immediately activated our emergency response plan and marshaled critical resources to the scene, scaling up those resources quickly as we better understood the cleanup requirements."

The company is conducting an internal review of its response, Matthews said.

A timeline provided by Plains Pipeline officials the day after the rupture indicated that the pipeline had been experiencing problems throughout the morning of May 19.

Mechanical problems at the Las Flores pumping station caused the pipeline to shut down at 10:45 a.m., Rick McMichael, the company's director of pipeline operations, told reporters last week. The pumps were restarted at 10:55 a.m, but a different pump along the line went down at 11:15 a.m., he said.  

An operator at a control center in Midland, Texas, shut down the pipeline again at 11:30 a.m. after detecting a drop in pressure, McMichael said. An "odor" was reported to the company at 12:30 p.m. and a company official confirmed the leak at 1:30 p.m.

At a news conference Thursday, held before the lawmakers’ letter was released, Plains Pipeline officials apologized for the spill.

"We will not leave until the job is completed," said Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety and security with the company.

The lawmakers' letter came as federal regulators announced that Plains Pipeline employees had removed the failed section of pipeline for testing following an excavation that took several days.

The section of pipe -- about 50 feet in length, according to the company -- will be taken to an independent metallurgical laboratory in Ohio.

The pipeline released up to 101,000 gallons of crude, with an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil flowing downhill from the spill site through a culvert, under the 101 Freeway and into the Pacific.

The pipeline, known as Line 901, transports crude oil from Las Flores to Gaviota and then to refineries throughout Southern California. It remains shut down while federal pipeline regulators investigate the cause of the failure, both on-site and at the company’s control room in Texas.

The spill has closed several miles of beaches on the Gaviota Coast while cleanup workers try to remove oil from the rocks, sand and the ocean surface. Officials said 18 oil-stricken birds and 10 marine mammals have died as a result of the spill.

The day after the oil spill Plains Pipeline officials said about 130 personnel were working on the response. By Thursday, nearly 1,200 workers were on scene, though not all were involved in the clean up effort.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard ordered Plains Pipeline to cleanup the area under requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.

The senators, in their letter on Thursday, also criticized the cleanup efforts, writing that authorities may not have “fully utilized” trained responders from local agencies and delayed training for volunteers.

“We are concerned that insufficient preparation may have slowed down the response effort,” the senators wrote.

Volunteers did not receive the four hours of safety training required by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration until Monday and did not begin assisting in the clean up until Tuesday, officials said.

Thomas Cullen, the administrator in charge of the administrator of the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, acknowledged the slow volunteer training effort in an interview earlier this week.

"It was not enough, we understand that," he said Tuesday as a group of around 30 volunteers cleaned Goleta Beach of small tar balls.

Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches will remain closed until at least June 18th, said Eric Hjelstrom, state parks superintendent for the Santa Barbara area.

"We have no way of knowing exactly when this clean up will end," Hjelstrom said at a news conference Thursday.

Twitter: @jpanzar

Twitter: @tonybarboza

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:22 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from the pipeline company's spokeswoman.

7:11 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from state oil spill response and parks officials, the company's timeline and the number of cleanup workers and volunteers.

This post was originally published at 5:42 p.m.

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