It happens just about every time there is a major oil spill: Federal regulators investigate the disaster, determine the cause, and then find the responsible party has a history of violations that indicate safety and environmental stewardship aren’t among its top priorities.
And so it goes with Plains All American Pipeline, the Texas company responsible for a pipeline breach that released between 105,000-143,000 gallons of oil near Santa Barbara, Calif., May 19, polluting miles of ecologically sensitive beaches and coastal habitats.
Several months before the breach, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulators inspected Plains All American lines 901 and 903, pipelines that run from offshore platforms off the Santa Barbara coast to Bakersfield, Calif. Those inspections detected six probable safety violations.
Among the findings was the energy company’s failure to properly document pressure tests it conducted on tanks designed to prevent surges of hazardous materials. Inspectors also found careless record keeping showing how it planned to prevent oil spills in environmentally fragile areas or respond to such a spill if one did occur.
The findings did not directly cause the Santa Barbara oil spill earlier this year, but PHMSA spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard said they indicate problems with the company in general.
“While the probable violations noted in the enforcement action did not result in a civil penalty, we believe that all safety related issues matter because they reflect the overall safety culture of an organization,” agency spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard said.
Robert Bea, a civil engineering professor at University of California, Berkeley, told the Associated Press that the regulatory findings reflect a company that may be unprepared to assess risk and prevent oil spills from occurring.
“In all the documentation I have reviewed concerning the pipeline, I have never seen evidence of any advanced risk assessment and management processes being used by Plains,” Mr. Bea, a former oil executive who has studied spills, told the Associated Press.