A test of the California pipeline that ruptured May 19, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil on miles of Santa Barbara coast, showed serious corrosion in the section of pipeline where the break occurred.
According to the Associated Press, a high-tech instrument called a “smart pig” was sent into the underground pipeline two weeks before the spill occurred to measure the internal and external corrosion, test the thickness of its walls, and detect cracks.
The Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the May 5 test revealed the pipeline, owned by Plains All American Pipeline of Texas, had lost 45 percent of its metal to corrosion. Last week, however, federal regulators said that a physical examination of the unearthed pipe revealed that more than 80 percent of it had corroded, wearing down the 6-inch walls to 1/16 of an inch in the place where the break occurred.
The discrepancy between the original test results and the actual findings call into question the reliability of pipeline tests and those who interpret the results.
Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley civil engineering professor with 30 years’ experience in the pipeline industry, told the Associated Press the name “smart pig” for the pipeline testing device is an “oxymoron.”
“As you may guess, the primary weaknesses show up in the human interpretation. They’re only as smart as the people who are interpreting the signals.”
Between analysis and the action taken based on the analysis, human error is to blame for 80 percent of pipeline breakdowns, Prof. Bea told the AP, indicating that successful test analyses demand intense scrutiny that often isn’t there.
“In one study Bea conducted, a man interpreting test results missed a defect and the pipe later failed under pressure. The day before he analyzed the results, the man’s wife had told him she was leaving him,” the AP reported.
“His mind was elsewhere,” Bea said.
Pipeline integrity tests are critical to environmental safety, especially in coastal areas where salt and moisture accelerate pipeline corrosion.
All American Pipeline does not know when it will reopen the 11-mile pipeline that ruptured, but said it would pay all costs associated with the cleanup, which polluted more than 60 miles of Southern California coastline.
Federal investigators found that 2012 tests showed the section of pipeline that ruptured would need repairs soon. According to the AP, they also said that smart pig tests revealed three other sections of the same pipeline were extensively corroded, with metal loss ranging from 54 percent to 74 percent.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris said last week that the state is weighing potential criminal charges against the pipeline operators. Civil and criminal investigations of the spill by federal and state authorities are ongoing.