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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 27th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 12

Oil and water: Crude hit Refugio Beach on May 19, seeping into the Pacific Ocean from a ruptured pipeline


Refugio state beach stank like gasoline just before sunset on May 21. The sand looked clean, the waves were clear and blue, but above the waterline, the rocks were dark, splattered with oil. Santa Cruz Island, vividly clear in the twilight, stood watch with the derricks as the light of the channel faded into the evening.

Refugio is the unlucky beach on which Line 901 spewed more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil. The line is a buried 24-inch steel pipe linking the Gaviota Pump Station to the refinery at Las Flores Canyon. It ruptured on May 19, oozing oil down the hill, under the freeway, and onto the beach. The stink tipped off the neighbors, but it was too late. The oil had already reached the ocean, and it was spreading north and east with the currents.

It may have been those complaints about smell, rather than ringing alarm bells, which tipped off Line 901’s operator that its pipe was spewing crude into the Santa Barbara Channel. That operator is Plains All American Pipeline, a large energy company based in Houston, Texas.

A control room employee noticed “abnormalities” in the line, and “shut it down” at approximately 11:30 a.m., the company said in a fact sheet on the Refugio Response website, Two hours later, at 1:30 in the afternoon, an employee travelled to the pipeline and “visually confirmed the release.”

And yet, by some accounts, no army of first responders swarmed the beach on that stinky Tuesday afternoon. Kira Redmond, director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, said that beach cleanup did not start in earnest until the morning of May 20. Linda Kropp with the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) told the Sun a similar story, saying it was “completely unacceptable” that the response wasn’t quicker.

“The oil never should have hit the ocean,” she said. “We were out there Tuesday night until 10 p.m., and they were doing nothing to contain the beach. They didn’t have the personnel and the equipment.”

On May 20, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Plains All American coordinated with the Department of Transportation—through which the federal government regulates pipelines—and the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Office of Emergency Services, Department of Fish and Game, and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management to create a “unified command” that would oversee cleanup efforts.

On that second day, hundreds of volunteers dressed in white hazmat gear bagged oily sand and removed it from the beach. On the water, dozens of vessels struggled to contain slicks between 4 and 9 miles long with just 3,000 feet of boom—a sort of floating barrier used to contain spills. Six pelicans and a harbor seal were taken to be de-oiled.

It’s not clear right now why the leak wasn’t found earlier or how long it had been leaking. In its factsheet, Plains said it inspects its pipelines by air every week. Line 901 was scanned with a pig—basically a robot that looks like a dumbbell and is designed to check pipes for problems—in 2012 and again just a few weeks before the accident.

Pigs move down the inside of a pipeline and use an array of sensors to scan for a number of potential issues. Carl Weinman, the director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the trove of data produced by the pig takes time and effort to decode—weeks or even months.

“A thousandth of an inch could show up in a smart pig run,” he said. “You need to run that data through a computer system to figure out what things are a problem and what aren’t.”

A series of pumps move oil through Plains’ pipelines and are equipped with controls that are programmed to automatically shut down under certain operating conditions, according to a fact sheet on the pipeline company’s website.

“The permit itself, it did require that, and the technology was definitely there,” Kropp from the EDC said. “We don’t know why the pipeline didn’t shut down immediately.”

One reason that Line 901’s details are relatively unknown is the county doesn’t inspect it. That’s the fruit of a 1988 case where Celeron All-American successfully challenged Santa Barbara County in federal court, shutting the county out of the regulatory process for that pipeline.

Kevin Drude, the county Energy Division’s director, said 901 is “the only pipeline whereby the county is preempted from monitoring and safety inspections.” He speculated that the decision was intended to make things simpler from a regulatory perspective.

“It’s always better to have one set of eyes and one billing machine,” he said.

Because of that 1988 decision, it fell to the federal government to keep an eye on Line 901. Until 2013, they did so alongside California’s Fire Marshal, but according to Weinman with the Pipeline Safety Trust, budget concerns eventually left the feds responsible for inspecting it on their own.

“Now you’re being inspected out of Denver instead of California,” he said.

Other concerns raised by watchdog groups are that the oil will devastate the biologically rich Santa Barbara Channel and the local fishing industry and that it will threaten migrating populations of whales. The Pipeline Safety Trust crunched the numbers on Plains and found its rate of pipeline incidents per mile was 14 percent higher than the average for crude oil. A quick Google search pulled up a mess of accidents and lawsuits associated with the company—since 2006, Plains-associated incidents have caused $23 million in property damage and almost 700,000 gallons of hazardous liquid spilled. Plains, on the defensive, reaffirmed its commitment to safety at a press conference the morning of May 21.

“Safety is not just a priority, it’s actually a core value at Plains,” said spokesperson Patrick Hodgkins at a press conference the morning of May 21. “Priorities can change but values cannot.”


Contact Staff Writer Sean McNulty at

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