Out With Old Mobil Pipeline, but Will New Line Be Better? : Environment: New pipeline’s coating is state-of-the-art. But it remains to be seen if it can avoid leakage problems that made its predecessor a dismal performer.


After crude oil gushed from a ruptured pipeline into Bull Creek in Granada Hills in April, 1986, Mobil Oil Corp. sought to assure pipeline regulators that it had things well in hand.

In a letter to the State Fire Marshal’s office, Mobil described the leak as an isolated incident caused by corrosion and blamed it on an ineffective pipe coating the company no longer used.

But in the next few years, more corrosion leaks occurred in pipe protected by coatings that were supposed to be better. The most recent was on Jan. 31, when 74,000 gallons of tarry crude flowed from broken pipe in Valencia, some of it befouling the Santa Clara River.

By then, Mobil, the country’s second-biggest oil company, had given up on the existing pipeline. It had poured millions of dollars into oil-spill cleanup, and cleanup expenses seemed certain to remain high as long the badly corroded line remained in service. So at the time of the Valencia spill, Mobil was well along in planning a new $88-million, 92-mile pipeline to bring crude oil from Kern County to its Torrance refinery.

The pipeline will traverse the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, following Sepulveda Boulevard for much of the way. And the new line, according to Mobil, will feature a state-of-the-art coating system, as well as other safety improvements.


But with Mobil poised to start construction, it remains to be seen if the new pipeline will avoid the problems that have made the existing line a dismal performer. At times in the past, Mobil was overly optimistic about the coatings it used to stem corrosion. And human error seems to have been a factor in some accidents.

Since late 1985, the pipeline has suffered numerous leaks and ruptures--some of them small and some occurring during hydrostatic testing, when water is flushed through the pipe at abnormally high pressure to check for weak spots.

Counting only the seven leaks that exceeded a federal reporting threshold of 50 barrels--or 2,100 gallons--the risk of accidents during the five-year period was about 10 times higher than for the average crude oil line of similar age, according to data contained in the environmental impact report prepared for the new pipeline.

“The line’s a chronic leaker,” said Jim Wait, chief of the Fire Marshal’s pipeline safety division, which regulates intrastate pipelines such as Mobil’s.

Many petroleum pipelines crisscross Los Angeles, but Mobil’s is unique for its “inordinate” number of spills, said Ken Cude, division engineer for the city Department of Transportation.

Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti acknowledged the pipeline’s problems, adding: “That’s why we want to replace it.”

Although the frequency of spills is an embarrassment to Mobil, it has made the new line easier to sell. For example, the Fire Marshal and city transportation department have been unabashed supporters, citing the repeated failures of the existing line.

Although opponents of the project, banded together as the Coalition Against the Pipeline, have filed suit to block construction, the continuing threat of spills from the existing line has almost surely cost them allies.

Portions of the pipeline are 50 years old--a fact officials of Mobil and the Fire Marshal’s office are quick to mention. But other experts say age alone is no excuse--that a pipeline properly installed and maintained virtually lasts forever.

“There’s something else that’s going on, no question about it, because age itself is not a problem with the pipelines,” said Richard Beam, deputy associate administrator of the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“It’s a question of how the line was designed, constructed and what its maintenance record is,” Beam said.

In fact, three-fourths of the pipeline is 20 years old or less, and it is on these sections that most of the recent accidents have occurred.

Last January’s spill in Valencia, another spill in Valencia of 1,040 gallons in May, 1990, a 132,000 gallon spill in Encino in September, 1988, and a 105,000 gallon spill in Lebec in June, 1987, occurred in pipe sections installed in 1971, 1972, 1975, and 1971, respectively.

External corrosion was blamed for each of these accidents. In each case, the protective pipe coating lining the outer wall of the pipe “disbonded"--or tore away--allowing moisture to corrode the steel.

There are a number of reasons why a coating may disbond. It may be improperly applied in the factory, or damaged during installation. Or it may simply be the wrong coating for the job at hand. It must be able to withstand “soil stress"--the beating it takes as the pipeline moves in the ground in response to changing temperature or pressure. And on certain pipelines, like Mobil’s, it must be capable of surviving high temperatures. Mobil’s is a “hot” oil line, in which the tarry crude is heated up to 180 degrees to keep it flowing.

Over the years, Mobil experimented unsuccessfully with a variety of coatings. Writing in the industry publication Oil & Gas Journal in May, 1987, James A. Nunn, corrosion manager for Mobil’s pipeline subsidiary, told how Mobil had expected each coating it tried “to be superior to its predecessor.” But coatings that were “expected to perform well under high-temperature conditions,” Nunn wrote, “have failed to reach full expectations.”

Along with coating failures, careless mistakes may have been a factor in some of the Mobil accidents. For example, after the 1988 Encino spill, officials discovered that the ruptured pipe had been laid on top of a steel water line. Experts say a steel pipe should never be placed against another metal line, as this may create corrosion currents between them. The city water line had been there long before the Mobil pipeline, but Mobil’s construction records did not mention it, according to a report in the Fire Marshal’s office.

Human error also may have caused the 105,000-gallon spill in Lebec in June, 1987. The break occurred next to a section of pipe that had been repaired in 1983. Protective tape had been wrapped around the area of repairs. “It is believed that the primary cause of the corrosion was from improper tape application,” says a memo in the State Fire Marshal’s files. This conclusion was Mobil’s, according to an official in the Fire Marshal’s office who said he had no further details.

One important feature of the proposed new pipeline is its uniform, 16-inch diameter. The uniform width will allow Mobil to use a sophisticated inspection device, known as a “smart pig,” that detects thinning of pipeline walls so repairs can be made before leaks occur.

Another much-touted improvement is a state-of-the-art coating developed for Mobil by Valspar Inc. and Du Pont Canada Inc. The coating is a blend of epoxy--which has great bonding properties but is somewhat vulnerable to moisture--and polypropylene, which provides great moisture protection but doesn’t bond as well.

“We do not know, it is true, that in 50 years you will not spring any leaks,” said Toni Pfaff, technical consultant to Valspar. But the hybrid coating is “the very best that the industry has been able to come up with,” he said.

Larry Teeter, attorney for the Coalition Against the Pipeline, remains skeptical. “I don’t think we should be confident about it unless we see the evidence, and I don’t see the evidence,” he said.

Although Mobil still needs approval from several cities, it has permission to build a 25-mile section through the Angeles National Forest and 26 miles in the city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles phase of the work could start this summer, as soon as the city approves a plan to manage traffic snarls from construction.

The coalition lawsuit, filed against Los Angeles and Mobil, contends city approval should be voided because it was based on a faulty environmental impact report. Among other things, the suit says the report did not adequately consider the risks of additional oil refining in a city that already has the nation’s dirtiest air.

The existing pipeline carries 63,500 barrels per day--just over half the crude requirements of the Torrance refinery.

The new 16-inch diameter line could carry twice as much, leading opponents to charge it is a foot in the door for more refining in the area. But Mobil says it will not increase production in Torrance.