Sunday 31 May 2015

Major pollution incident after oil pipeline ruptures in Santa Barbara County, California.

Clean-up crews are struggling to cope after a ruptured pipeline was discovered to have leaked around 2500 barrels (400 000 litres) of crude oil in Santa Barbara County, California, on Tuesday 19 May 2015. The pipeline, operated by Plains All American, was initially shut down after a mechanical problem was encountered at 10.45 am, then restarted at 10.55, before being shut down by a remote operator at 11.30 after a drop in pressure was detected. At 11.42 the Santa Barbara Fire Department received a call reporting a ‘pungent oil smell’ on Refugio Beach, leading to an investigation which at 12.20 pm led to firefighters discovering crude oil flowing from a culvert (storm drain) onto the beach.

Oil collected by volunteers from Refugio Beach on 21 May 2015. Jae Hong/AP.

The Santa Barbara Fire Department notified Plains All American, who sent a response team that constructed a sand and rock barrier to block further oil from escaping from the culvert, and estimated that around 21 000 gallons of oil (500 barrels or 80 000 litres) had been released, an estimate which was later raised to 105 000 gallons (2500 barrels or 400 000 litres), of which around 20 000 gallons (480 barrels or 75 000 litres) of oil is thought to have entered the sea. At this time the Coast Guard, National Response Center and Environmental Protection Agency were notified, and several local beaches were closed to the public and fishing and shellfish harvesting banned in the local area.

The source of the May 2015 Santa Barbara oil spill, and the culvert through which it reached the beach. John Wiley/Wikipedia.

Shortly after the spill was discovered volunteer teams began a clean-up operation, though they struggled to cope due to the scale of the spill, and report that they were not joined by professional clean-up teams employed by Plains All American, or the county, state or federal government for ‘several days’.  A week after the incident was reported it was estimated that less than 6% of the escaped oil had been recovered, and a large number of oiled Seabirds and Seals have reported, and where possible taken to recovery centres for treatment. Significant numbers of dead Fish and Invertebrates have also been reported, and concerns have been raised that the oil may present a threat to Whales, which migrate through the area at this time of year.

Volunteers clean an oiled Pelican at a center run by the UC-Davis led Oiled Wildlife Care Network. East County Magazine.

The Santa Barbara Channel was the scene of a major oil spill in 1969, in which 3.4-4.2 million gallons (81 000-100 000 barrels or 13 000 000-15 000 000 litres) of crude oil escaped from an oil well blowout which was not capped for 10 days. This incident led directly to the formation of a number of prominent US environmental protest groups, and a tightening of environmental restrictions in Santa Barbara County, where all pipelines are now supposed to be fitted with automatic cutouts (which detect drops in pressure within pipelines and shut off the supply of oil without human intervention). Since the introduction of these regulations only a single major incident has occurred, when in 1997 a platform operator manually overrode an automatic cutout on a pipeline connecting an oil well to the shore which had a faulty weld, leading to the spillage of 6800 gallons (160 barrels or 26 000 litres) of crude oil.

Volunteers cleaning oil from a Santa Barbara beach in 1969. The oil is being soaked up with straw, which is then placed in drums for removal. AP.

However it has been reported this week that Plains All American won exemption from regulation by Santa Barbara County in a court case in the 1990s and the affected pipeline was not fitted with an automatic cutout. This is of particular concern as the amount of oil lost from the pipeline, 2500 barrels, represents over an hour of pumping at the pipeline’s maximum capacity (2000 barrels per hour) and nearly two hours at the rate at which the pipeline was being operated (1300 barrels per hour), implying that even if 100% of the oil was being lost from the pipeline (unlikely) it still took two hours for Plains All American to detect the fault, and that if a lower percentage of oil was being lost the leak must have persisted for several hours.

See also…

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