BOXER, FEINSTEIN, MARKEY, CAPPS DEMAND ANSWERS FROM PLAINS ALL AMERICAN PIPELINE ON ITS RESPONSE TO REFUGIO BEACH OIL SPILL

Members Cite Pipeline Operator’s “Troubling” Safety Record, With 175 Safety and Maintenance Violations Since 2006

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) joined Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA) today to send a letter to Plains All American Pipeline Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Greg Armstrong raising questions about the company’s response to the devastating oil spill near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County. The Members called for answers about the May 19 rupture of the company’s pipeline, which spilled more than 101,000 gallons of crude oil into this sensitive coastal area, the worst oil spill in California in 25 years.

In the letter, the Members called the company’s safety record “troubling.” According to news reports, Plains Pipeline has one of the worst safety records of any pipeline company, with 175 safety and maintenance violations since 2006 that have resulted in more than 16,000 barrels of oil spilled and more than $23 million worth of property damage.

“Given the Refugio State Beach incident, as well as Plains Pipeline having committed over one hundred safety violations in the past decade and having to spend millions in penalties for damaging the environment, we find your prior safety record troubling,” the Members wrote.

The lawmakers called for immediate answers after federal regulators found this week that the company’s pipeline was heavily corroded. Although a May 5 inspection report ordered by Plains Pipeline showed corrosion metal loss of 45 percent in the area of the rupture, third party investigators found that, in fact, 82 percent of the pipe’s thickness had worn away.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent findings from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that revealed that the pipeline that ruptured showed signs of extensive corrosion,” the Members wrote. “We are also concerned about inconsistencies in the inspection reports about this pipeline, which raise questions about the safety of other pipelines that you operate.”

The Members questioned Plains Pipeline’s response after its employees first detected anomalies in Line 901 at 11:30 a.m. on May 19. According to the corrective action order issued by PHMSA, the company discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m., but did not report the incident to the National Response Center until 2:56 p.m. The Members urged the company to explain “why this release of oil was not reported to the National Response Center for 1 hour and 26 minutes after it was visually confirmed by Plains employees and 3 hours and 26 minutes after anomalies were first detected.”

New reports also indicate that Plains Pipeline initially stopped pumping after the anomalies were first detected, but then resumedpumping about 20 minutes later. The Members asked, “Why did you resume pumping when there was potentially a larger problem?”

 

“Any delay in detecting or reporting this spill or shutting down the pipeline could have exacerbated the extent of the damage to the environment,” they wrote.

 

Media reports indicate that there was no automatic shut-off sensor system on the pipeline, even though this technology has long been recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board to mitigate disasters like this one. The Members asked the company to explain whether or not it will install an automatic shut-off system on Line 901 when it repairs the damaged pipeline. They also asked the company to detail how many shut-off valves it has on the 17,800 miles of crude oil and natural gas liquid pipelines it operates in the United States and Canada.

Finally, the lawmakers asked Plains Pipeline to detail how much it has invested in safety improvements – given the company’s record of safety violations – including whether any upgrades were made to Line 901 or other pipelines it operates in California.  In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice announced that Plains would spend $41 million on upgrades to oil pipelines operated in the United States, stemming from Clean Water Act violations for oil spills in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas.

The Members asked for a response from Armstrong by the close of business on June 19, 2015.

The full text of the letter follows:

June 5, 2015

 

Mr. Greg Armstrong

Chairman and CEO

Plains Pipeline, LP

333 Clay Street

Suite 1600

Houston, TX 77002

 

Dear Mr. Armstrong:

 

The devastating oil spill near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County that discharged more than 101,000 gallons of oil will leave long-lasting and significant damage to sensitive coastal lands and wildlife.  Given the Refugio State Beach incident, as well as Plains Pipeline having committed over one hundred safety violations in the past decade and having to spend millions in penalties for damaging the environment, we find your prior safety record troubling. 

 

We are deeply concerned about the recent findings from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that revealed that the pipeline that ruptured showed signs of extensive corrosion. We are also concerned about inconsistencies in the inspection reports about this pipeline, which raise questions about the safety of other pipelines that you operate. We ask that you immediately provide more information regarding Plains Pipeline’s response to this tragic spill – specifically about your oil spill response plans, the reliability of your inspection reports, your requirements for detection and notification of oil spills, your use of automatic shut-off valves, and about any safety upgrades stemming from your company’s prior oil incidents.

 

Prompt detection and communication of a pipeline failure is essential to an effective response and minimizing the impact of an oil spill. According to the corrective action order issued by PHMSA, Plains Pipeline employees detected anomalies in Line 901 at 11:30 a.m., discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m., and reported the incident to the National Response Center at 2:56 p.m.  Based on this timeline of events, we are concerned that Plains Pipeline may not have detected this spill or reported it to federal officials as quickly as possible. New reports also indicate that Plains Pipeline initially stopped pumping after the anomalies were first detected, but then resumed pumping about 20 minutes later.  Any delay in detecting or reporting this spill, or shutting down the pipeline could have exacerbated the extent of the damage to the environment.

 

We are also concerned that the ruptured pipeline reportedly did not have an automatic shut-off valve, which can swiftly react to a loss in pressure, and significantly decrease the volume of oil or gas released in a pipeline failure. After the tragic San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, we proposed several pipeline safety provisions that were enacted into law, including a requirement that automatic or remotely controlled shut-off valves be installed on both new pipelines and old pipelines being replaced. This technology has long been recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, and we would like to ensure that it is fully deployed to mitigate disasters like this one.

 

In light of these distressing facts, we ask that you provide us with the following information in writing by the close of business on June 19, 2015.

 

  1. Please provide an unredacted copy of Plains Pipeline’s spill response plan for Line 901. When was this spill response plan approved by PHMSA? What is the maximum spill detection and shutdown time for Line 901 outlined in the spill response plan approved by PHMSA?
  2. According to the original corrective action order issued by PHMSA, Plains Pipeline employees detected anomalies in Line 901 at 11:30 a.m., discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m. and reported the incident to the National Response Center at 2:56 p.m. While we understand that this question may be part of PHMSA’s investigation, please provide whatever information you have as to why this release of oil was not reported to the National Response Center for 1 hour and 26 minutes after it was visually confirmed by Plains employees and 3 hours and 26 minutes after anomalies were first detected?
  3. According to documents provided by your company, a Plains Pipeline Control Room employee saw abnormalities in the line and shut it down at approximately 11:30 a.m. However, subsequent reports note that Control Room operators originally shut down pumps on the line, restarted them about 20 minutes later, and shut down the pumps again after finding the pumps had failed.  When did Plains Pipeline personnel first discover abnormalities in Line 901? How long after first discovering these abnormalities was Line 901 shut down (both initially and permanently)? Why did you resume pumping when there was potentially a larger problem, and who approved the restart of Line 901? What factors contributed to the decision to shut down the line a second time?
  4. According to documents provided by your company, an employee traveled to the site and visually confirmed the release of oil at 1:30 p.m. While we understand that this question may be part of PHMSA’s investigation, please provide whatever information you have as to why it took roughly two hours to visually confirm the existence of a release of oil?
  5. According to PHMSA, the affected pipeline was recently inspected using a smart pig on May 5, 2015, but the report had not yet been provided to Plains Pipeline at the time of the incident. How long does Plains Pipeline typically provide for vendors performing in-line inspections to provide a report of the results, which may show corrosion or other anomalies that could potentially lead to spills? Please provide a copy of the final results of this in-line inspection report either accompanying your response to this letter or when it is provided to you.
  6. Preliminary results from your May 5 inspection reported corrosion metal loss of 45 percent in the area of the rupture, but third party investigators have revealed that 82 percent of the pipe’s thickness had actually worn away (down to 1/16 of an inch) instead. Please explain how there can be such large inconsistencies in these measurements.  Does the inconsistency of these measurements raise further concern for the safety of the remainder of this pipeline and other pipelines that you operate in the area?
  7. Please confirm that Line 901 was not outfitted with an automatic shut-off sensor system.  If such a system was not in place, will Plains Pipeline be installing such a system on Line 901 after the pipeline is excavated, inspected, and replaced? If not, why not?
  8. According to information on Plains Pipeline’s website, your company operates 17,800 miles of active crude oil and natural gas liquid pipelines and gathering systems in the United States and Canada. How many miles of crude oil and natural gas liquid pipelines and gathering systems does Plains Pipeline operate in the United States? How many of these pipelines in the United States are equipped with automatic shut-off valves?
  9. According to news reports, your company has had one of the worst safety records of any pipeline company, with 175 safety and maintenance violations since 2006 that have spilled more than 16,000 barrels of oil that have caused more than $23 million worth of property damage. Please provide the amount of money Plains Pipeline has spent on pipeline safety improvements in each year for the past 10 years and any additional steps Plains Pipeline is taking to improve safety on the pipelines it operates.
  10. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department announced that Plains would spend approximately $41 million on upgrades to oil pipelines operated in the United States, stemming from Clean Water Act violations for oil spills in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Please provide a complete description of how these funds were allocated and whether any of these funds were used to upgrade the Line 901 pipeline near Santa Barbara, or any other pipelines operated by Plains within the State of California.  If these funds were used to upgrade Line 901 or other pipelines in California, please describe what upgrades were made and the pipelines involved.

Sincerely,

 

Barbara Boxer

United States Senator

 

Dianne Feinstein

United States Senator

 

Edward J. Markey

United States Senator

 

Lois Capps

Member of Congress

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