Santa Barbara Oil Spill just the latest in history of problems for operator

While frantic efforts are underway to address the environmental damage caused by the Refugio Oil Spill near Santa Barbara, California it has been reported that the pipeline operator, Plains Pipeline, has one of the highest infraction and incident counts in recent history, including 175 safety and maintenance violations since 2006:

A Times analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows Plains’ rate of incidents per mile of pipe is more than three times the national average. Among more than 1,700 pipeline operators listed in a database maintained by the federal agency, only four companies reported more infractions than Plains Pipeline.

The company, which transports and stores crude oil, is part of Plains All American Pipeline, which owns and operates nearly 18,000 miles of pipe networks in several states. It reported $43 billion in revenue in 2014 and $878 million in profit.

The company’s infractions involved pump failure, equipment malfunction, pipeline corrosion and operator error. None of the incidents resulted in injuries. According to federal records, since 2006 the company’s incidents caused more than $23 million in property damage and spilled more than 688,000 gallons of hazardous liquid.

As evidenced by the course of the legal proceedings following the 2010 Mercado Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico–officially blamed on BP–an operators safety and maintenance violation record will have a direct bearing on the eventual fines and penalties that are assessed. The estimated number of gallons¬†said to have entered into the environment have escalated from an original number of 21,000 gallons to now have reached as much as 105,000 gallons.

Thankfully swift action by Plains Pipeline prevented a greater catastrophe from occurring. When “abnormalities” were detected by pipeline montiors the flow of oil was stopped. The pipeline can carry a rate of up to¬† 6.3 million gallons of oil per day. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency that will free emergency funding for the cleanup effort.

The specific section where the incident took place was inspected just two weeks ago, too soon for the results to have been delivered to Plains Pipeline, leading to speculation that the contractor who did the inspection may have caused some sort of damage that resulted in the leak and may also be directly benefiting from the cleanup effort.

The coastal area that has been damaged by this leak was also the site of a 1969 oil spill that gushed 4.2 million gallons on the surrounding shoreline and birthed the modern environmental movement and the first Earth Day. Some environmentalists are concerned that this much smaller spill may actually cause more damage do to the proximity to the Gaviota Coast, a biosphere noted for it’s unique Mediterranean climate and home to two endangered birds. The area is a popular destination for beach-lovers and being closed for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend will have a dramatic effect on the local economy.

[LA Times][Time][The Guardian][Washington Post][Photo Credit: Scott London]