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Failures that led to Santa Barbara oil spill were ‘completely unacceptable,’ investigators say

Santa Barbara oil spill
Workers load debris from cleanup efforts at Refugio State Beach on June 4, 2015.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The operator of a pipeline that spilled 123,000 gallons of crude oil in Santa Barbara last year "failed on multiple levels to prevent, detect and respond to the incident,” a federal pipeline administrator said Thursday.

“What happened is completely unacceptable,” said Marie Therese Dominguez, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“Inadequate assessment of the safety of this line and faulty planning made matters worse,” Dominguez told reporters during a media conference call.

Release of the agency’s final investigation Thursday follows news this week that the pipeline’s owner, Plains All American Pipeline, has been indicted on criminal negligence charges by a Santa Barbara County grand jury.

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Dominguez said other federal agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice are still reviewing the case for possible civil and criminal actions.

The direct cause of the rupture was external corrosion that thinned the pipe wall, Dominguez said.

The investigation found that the operator failed to property analyze data from a tool that is used to detect corrosion of the pipeline.

“A different inline tool could have prevented the rupture,” Dominguez said.

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Contributing factors included "failure to protect the pipe from corrosion and failing to respond,” Dominguez said. “Further, the system used to detect leaks and ruptures did not alert control room staff of the leak.”

During the conference call, Linda Daugherty, deputy associate administrator for field operations for the pipeline administration, described a chain of events that delayed response when an operator in Midland, Texas, was working on a routine and unrelated problem.

“He asked the supervisor to inhibit the alarms so he wouldn’t have to keep receiving the alarms,” Daugherty said. “Unfortunately, at the same time the line failed ... the controller did not receive notice of the failure of the pipeline until a delayed time.”

That notice finally arrived by telephone, Daugherty said.

Compounding those errors, Plains' oil spill response plan “did not consider a culvert that allowed crude oil to easily flow to the beach and ocean,” Dominguez said.

On Tuesday, California authorities announced that a grand jury had indicted Houston-based Plains on 46 criminal counts, including four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters. A 41-year-old company employee who worked as an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist faces three charges.

The pipeline remains shut down.

“We will not allow the pipeline to continue operation until we are certain the issues are corrected,” Dominguez said.

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At the time of the spill, experts described it as moderate in size but cautioned that it could have a dramatic effect on a region visited by rare seabirds, migrating whales, sea lions and dolphins.

During the cleanup, which involved scientists, government officials and industrial crews, fish and marine animals were found cloaked in petroleum. At one point, a juvenile sea lion, its belly stained with oil, washed up on the beach and collapsed not far from the site of the pipeline break.

On Tuesday, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said that Plains All American Pipeline had been uncooperative during the criminal investigation and that her office was “committed to putting all the resources that are necessary into seeing this case through.”

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UPDATES:

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4:35 p.m. This story was updated with a more precise estimate of the gallons spilled. Previous reports had indicated that as much as 140,000 or more gallons spilled.

This article originally published at 2:52 p.m.


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