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Fearing corrosion, regulators order Santa Barbara oil pipeline emptied

Corroded pipe

A ruptured section of an oil pipeline is inspected on May 28, 2015, after the May 19 oil spill along the Santa Barbara Coast.

( Bruce Reitherman / Santa Barbara County)

Federal regulators on Friday ordered the Texas company responsible for an oil spill in Santa Barbara County in May to empty crude oil from a 115-mile stretch of pipeline that runs from the Pacific Ocean east into Kern County for fear that corrosion could lead to another spill. 

The pipeline, known as Line 903, has corrosion issues similar to the section of pipe that ruptured May 19 and spilled as much as 143,000 gallons of crude along the picturesque Gaviota coast.  

Though the pipeline has been shut down since May it is still filled with unprocessed crude oil that may contain natural gas and other impurities that could lead to internal corrosion, according to the order.

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Chemicals in the oil, including a rust inhibitor intended to prevent corrosion are also less effective after sitting in the pipe for months, regulators say. 

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) called the order "an important step to ensure that all necessary repairs are in place before this pipeline service is restored.”  

The order from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration slams Texas company Plains All American Pipeline for not having an “effective” program to deal with corrosion control.

Regulators found that company inspections over the last 10 years -- done by an internal diagnostic tool that snakes through the pipeline -- underestimated the level of corrosion in the pipe.

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When Plains dug up and investigated sections of pipe with signs of corrosion they did not share those direct field measurements with the vendor in charge of the internal inspection. Such practice is common in the pipeline industry to ensure the accuracy of the inspection tool. 

A spokesman for Plains said the company would comply with the order but added that the company did not agree with “several” of the regulator’s findings. 

In September, federal regulators issued warnings to Plains after they found out the company failed to keep adequate records of safety evaluations performed on the pipeline system and were unable locate records of an internal safety evaluation that was performed on the oil pipeline. 

Plains ran a “sloppy” inspection operation, said Robert Bea, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who reviewed the federal order for The Times. 

“This was being treated far too causally,” he said. “It is unacceptable in such a sensitive public area.”

The spill occurred when a badly corroded section of a 10.6-mile pipeline that runs parallel to U.S. 101 ruptured, sending crude oil flowing down a culvert to the ocean.

That pipeline, known as Line 901, had  “extensive” external corrosion, and the thickness of the pipe’s wall where it broke had degraded to an estimated one-sixteenth of an inch, the pipeline agency said.

Oil coated cliffs, rocks and sandy beaches for weeks, forcing the closure of Refugio and El Capitan state beaches, and small tar balls from the spill made their way as far south as Redondo Beach.

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Plains originally estimated 101,000 gallons of crude were released but increased that number to 143,000 gallons during an earnings call with investors in August. 

The company did not provide a new estimate on how much of that oil ended up in the Pacific; the original estimate was 21,000 gallons. 

In total, 204 dead birds and 106 dead mammals were recovered from the spill. 

Follow @jpanzar 

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