Santa Barbara Oil Spill Highlights Local Concerns

  • 05/28/2015
  • Reporters Desk

Plains All American, the corporate parent behind the Rancho LPG facility, has gained national attention for its abysmal safety record after a 24-inch pipeline owned by a Plains subsidiary, Plains All American Pipeline, burst near Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara County on May 19.

The burst released up to 105,000 gallons of oil, five times the amount originally reported by the company. An estimated 21,000 gallons reached the sea, producing a nine-mile oil slick, which brought out hundreds of local volunteers to clean up as the oil washed back ashore. The 11-mile-long pipeline, part of a larger multi-county network, can pump 6.3 million gallons per day.

Although Santa Barbara County requires pipelines in its jurisdiction to be equipped with automatic shut-off valves (so sensitive they can detect a 20-barrel loss over a 20-hour period), the pipeline in question was the only one in the county without such equipment, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. This is a result of Plains’ corporate predecessor successfully fighting regulatory oversight, much as has happened at Rancho. The oil spill is in the same general area as the 1969 off-shore spill that supercharged the environmental movement and inspired the first Earth Day in 1970.

In covering Plains’ involvement, Al Jazeera America has called attention to “a long history of safety and environmental violations by the company in the United States and Canada,” citing news reports and Environmental Protection Agency records, including a 2010 settlement with EPA for $3.2 million in civil penalties covering 10 oil spills. At the time, the EPA said Plains and its subsidiaries, “have agreed to spend approximately $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles of crude oil pipeline operated in the United States.” Al Jazeera also cited the rupture of a pipeline in Atwater Village almost exactly one year earlier, which released more than 18,000 gallons of crude oil into city streets.

The Los Angeles Times cited federal records saying the company “has accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006,” but that figure only covers Plains Pipeline, the most extensive of three Plains All American subsidiaries identified by Random Lengths News listed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in its online database.

Altogether, Plains subsidiaries had 206 violations over this period (4.5 percent of the total reported), with damages totaling $26.8 million. The most common causes were corrosion, followed by material and/or equipment failure. The average of more than 21 spills per year amounts to almost one every two weeks. Only two other entities had more spills reported over this period: Sunoco Pipeline LP had 232 and Enterprise Products Operating LLC had 208.

—Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor



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