The pipeline that caused a massive oil spill this weekend was supposed to have automatic shut-off equipment to immediately stop oil spills and alert a control room, according to a copy of the original 1979 approval records reviewed by Voice of OC.
Yet it’s not clear if the auto shut-off equipment was in place and operating properly when the pipeline leaked up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil.
Officials with the “unified command” – which represents the U.S. Coast Guard and pipeline owner Amplify Energy – declined to comment Thursday, citing an ongoing investigation.
When the pipeline, which goes to an oil platform named Elly, came up for original approval in 1979, California coastal protection officials wrote it would have a system to quickly stop leaks.
“In order to assure quick response in the event of a pipeline leak or rupture, platform Elly will be equipped with equipment to immediately shut down the pumps for the pipeline system,” wrote California Coastal Commission staff in the copy of their 1979 report for the pipeline’s approval reviewed by Voice of OC.
“The pipeline is equipped with two types of leak detection devices, which can alert personnel or automatically shut down the system. A pressure sensor on the pipeline exit from the platform can detect larger pipeline ruptures and will automatically shut down the system.”
The pipeline’s developer told the Coastal Commission at the time they agreed with the staff’s recommendations, calling them “excellent” and saying the company would comply, according to meeting minutes provided to Voice of OC Thursday by a Coastal Commission spokesman.
Asked about the permit records, pipeline researcher Richard Charter said they raise all sorts of questions about what went wrong this weekend.
“There was pretty sophisticated technology then. And it’s supposed to sense that pressure drops in the pipeline…and it just stops the flow of oil,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation.
The leak detectors would also have to sound alarms to operators if more than 25 or 50 barrels leak, according to Coastal Commission records.
This weekend’s leak was between 588 barrels and about 4,100 barrels, according to federal officials.
Charter said it’s apparent the automatic shut off equipment didn’t work.
“Now, that pretty clearly didn’t happen. So was it not maintained? Was it removed?” he asked.
“What happened there to not have that primary safety device – to either fail or not be maintained, or not be in the system, nor not be activated? Something went wrong, aside from the lack of notification. Some automation failed or wasn’t there anymore,” he said.
Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher has repeatedly refused to say if the shut-off and notification equipment was working properly.
“We are conducting a full investigation of that and working with other regulators to see if there’s other things that should’ve been noticed,” Willsher said at a Wednesday news conference.
“I’m not sure if there was a significant loss of pressure, but we will fully investigate this.”
Coast Guard investigators are examining whether the leak was caused by a ship anchor hitting the pipeline, according to news reports.
That’s the exact scenario state officials warned about in 1979 as a major risk.
Coastal Commission officials called for burying the pipeline 10 feet under the seabed in areas where ships anchor, to prevent ship anchors from breaking it and causing a spill.
“Pipeline damage due to anchor dragging has been one of the major causes of subsea pipeline rupture in offshore oil operations,” commission staff wrote.
“A suggested depth within these anchorages would be about ten ft. below the ocean floor. The Commission find[s] that the pipeline shall be buried at this depth within anchorage areas unless the Corps of engineers in consultation with the Coast Guard determines that a different depth will provide adequate protection for the subsea pipeline.”
The unified command’s press office didn’t respond to a message asking if the pipeline was in fact buried under the sea 10 feet under the ocean floor in areas where ships anchor.
At a Tuesday news conference, Willsher said the pipe, which is encased in concrete, wasn’t buried.
“It sits more on the seafloor than it is under the seafloor,” Willsher told reporters.
Videos released by unified command Thursday show the pipeline is above the ocean floor in the area it ruptured.
So far, there’s been no public answers from company or federal officials on what caused the leak.
Pipeline operator Beta Offshore – a subsidiary of Amplify Energy – waited more than three hours to shut down its pipeline after being warned by alarms that it was likely leaking – and waited over six hours to report the leak to authorities, federal investigators found in their preliminary investigation.
The massive leak – which has been killing wildlife and damaging habitats along much of Orange County’s coast – happened around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and set off control room alarms at that time, according to a preliminary investigation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Yet the operator didn’t shut the pipeline down until 6:01 a.m. – ”over three hours later,” investigators wrote in their order, signed late Monday.
It wasn’t until 9:07 a.m. Pacific time – ”over six hours after the initial alarm and three hours after the company shut down the pipeline” that the operator reported the leak to authorities, “indicating there was a release of crude oil in the vicinity of its pipeline near Platform Elly,” investigators wrote.
The preliminary findings don’t say why the company took so long to report the leak.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.