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Senators Demand Answers About Refugio Response Delays


In a letter sent to the head of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) demand to know how Plains All American Pipeline personnel took upward of two and three hours to find the failure and report it to the National Response Center after the pipeline anomalies were first detected. They also ask Timothy Butters, deputy administrator of PHMSA, why an automatic shutoff valve was not in place on the ruptured pipeline, as recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board. The three further want to know why local resources were not used fully and why hazardous material training for volunteers was delayed significantly. The letter is reproduced below.

May 28, 2015

Mr. Timothy P. Butters

Deputy Administrator

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

U.S. Department of Transportation

East Building, 2nd Floor

1200 New Jersey Ave., SE

Washington, DC 20590

Dear Mr. Butters:

Following one of the most devastating oil spills in California history, we need answers about why this happened, why the response was insufficient and what can be done to prevent another tragic spill like this from happening in the future. The recent rupture of a pipeline operated by Plains Pipeline, LP reportedly leaked more than 100,000 gallons of oil in Santa Barbara County. We appreciate that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is overseeing an investigation of the cause of the pipeline failure, and we look forward to your conclusions. This incident has raised several concerns that we would like to share with you, and we ask that you provide more information about PHMSA’s requirements for oil spill response plans, training exercises, and automatic shutoff valves.

Prompt detection and communication of a pipeline failure is essential to effectively responding and minimizing impacts to the community and the environment. According to the corrective action order issued by PHMSA, Plains Pipeline employees detected anomalies in Line 901 at 11:30 a.m. PST, discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m. PST and reported the incident to the National Response Center at 2:56 p.m. PST. Based on this timeline, we are concerned that Plains Pipeline may not have detected this spill or reported it to federal officials as quickly as possible, and that these delays 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 shutoff 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.

Lastly, we are concerned that the coordinated clean-up efforts may not have sufficiently utilized local resources. Often, local responder agencies are well-trained to assist in the response and clean-up effort following an oil spill. However, we have heard reports that they have not been fully utilized. We have also heard that hazardous material training for volunteers was significantly delayed, and that authorities must still determine whether sensitive tribal lands affected by the oil spill can or will be cleaned. These are all factors we would have expected to be dealt with in the oil spill response plan, and we are concerned that insufficient preparation may have slowed down the response effort.

In light of these concerns, we ask that you provide us with the following information in writing by the close of business on June 11, 2015.

  1. Please provide a complete and 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?
  2. When was Line 901 inspected over the last 10 years either by Plains Pipeline or by PHMSA? Does PHMSA have requirements that Line 901 or other similar pipelines be inspected at regular intervals? If not, why not? Is PHMSA aware of any safety related issues identified by previous inspections of Line 901, and, if so, what steps has Plains Pipeline taken to address these issues? Is PHMSA aware of any other pipelines in this region that have been identified as a concern based on in-line or other inspections? If so, what remedial actions has PHMSA recommended?
  3. In approving a spill response plan, what consideration is given by PHMSA to the coordination of oil spill response and clean-up efforts with local first responders, volunteers, and tribal governments?
  4. Please describe whether local land owners, land management agencies, and other stakeholders receive oil spill preparedness and clean up response training in advance of any oil spills that may occur on their properties of interest. Please verify whether any such training was provided to any stakeholders within the affected area of the Line 901 oil spill.
  5. Does PHMSA believe that it has the legal authority to require the installation of automatic or remote shut-off valves for line 901 as the pipeline is repaired, whether through an amended Corrective Action Order or other means? If not, why not. If so, will such action be required?
  6. According to the corrective action order issued by PHMSA, Plains Pipeline employees detected anomalies in Line 901 at 11:30 a.m. PST, discovered the failure at 1:30 p.m. PST and reported the incident to the National Response Center at 2:56 p.m. PST. While we understand that this question may be part of PHMSA’s investigation, please provide whatever information PHMSA has 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?
  7. According to documents provided by Plains Pipeline, an employee traveled to the site and visually confirmed the release of oil at 1:30 p.m. PST. While we understand that this question may be part of PHMSA’s investigation, please provide whatever information PHMSA has as to why it took two hours for Plains Pipeline to visually confirm the existence of a release of oil?

Should you have any questions about this request, please contact Kyle Chapman on Senator Boxer’s staff, Trevor Higgins on Senator Feinstein’s staff, or Morgan Gray on Sen. Markey’s staff. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer

United States Senator

Dianne Feinstein

United States Senator

Edward J. Markey

United States Senator

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