Plains All American lab tests show oil from pipeline spill spread along hundreds of miles of California coastline

WASHINGTON — At least some of the tar balls that washed onto Southern California beaches in the past month are linked to the crude released from a ruptured pipeline offshore, according to lab results reported Friday.

Although popular Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County was apparently unaffected during the first week after an estimated 101,000 gallons of oil leaked from Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 — tar balls collected on May 27 had a chemical fingerprint matching that spilled crude.

Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline released a summary of the lab tests on Friday, as state and federal lawmakers intensified their scrutiny of the company’s damaged pipeline and the spill.

The results suggest that the accident ultimately touched a broad swath of Southern California’s coastline. Plains said Friday it had spent some $96 million responding to the accident and trying to clean up the spilled crude.

“Although 94 percent of the impacted shoreline has reached its end-point clean-up objective, we recognize that the last 6 percent will be the hardest,” said Patrick Hodgins, senior director of safety and security for Plains, in testimony before a California Senate select committee Friday. “I assure you that we will stick with this cleanup until it is done.”

Spill-related petroleum globs have stopped washing onto some of the first beaches affected by the accident, stretching from Gaviota, California to El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara. Tar balls collected on beaches from Gaviota to Santa Barbara between May 19 and May 25 were chemically matched to Line 901 crude. But tar balls collected from May 26 to June 7 along the same area came from other sources, Plains said.

Some tar balls show up on Southern California beaches as a result of natural seeps — when crude emerges from fissures along the seafloor.

Following the spill, Plains All American Pipeline shut off Line 901 and its connecting Line 903, which has had metal loss anomalies in previous inspections.

The ruptured 24-inch-diameter pipeline forced Exxon Mobil to shut off oil production at its three platforms off the Santa Barbara coast earlier this week. Exxon Mobil had already slashed daily production in the wake of the spill but still ran out of storage space for its crude.

Four other platforms — one owned by Venoco Inc. and three by Freeport-McMoRan — already have been shut down for weeks.

Plains’ Hodgins defended the company’s response in front of the California Senate select committee holding a hearing on the spill Friday afternoon. The company has faced renewed questions about how swiftly it identified Line 901 as the source of the spill and alerted authorities.

Representatives from Plains Pipeline, the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were attending a previously scheduled spill drill when the accident began.

Hodgins provided a detailed timeline:

  • At 11:30 a.m. May 19, a pump was remotely shut down by workers in a Plains control room. Hodgins said that meant “no more oil was pumped into the line from that time forward.
  • At 11:42 a.m., the Santa Barbara County Fire Department received a 911 call regarding an odor.
  • Just after noon, state park staff were alerted to the 911 call and searched for the source of the odor.
  • Just before 12:30 p.m., Santa Barbara County Fire Department personnel notified the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management representative at the spill drill that oil was on Refugio State Beach. The drill was canceled.
  • At 12:43 p.m., the National Response Center was notified of the spill. A later phone call to the NRC was recorded at 2:56 p.m.
  • Soon after, representatives from Plains Pipeline and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management visually confirmed there was oil on the water but was not clear of the source.
  • After that, two Plains Pipeline employees left to ride the Line 901 right-of-way in a bid to determine if Line 901 was the source of the oil.
  • Around 1:25 to 1:30 p.m., Plains Pipeline employees confirmed the oil came from Line 901.
  • Hodgins said the employees immediately used cell phones to notify people and mobilize resources. And, he said, a Plains employee and Santa Barbara Fire Department personnel attempted to build “a makeshift berm” to prevent additional oil from getting into a culvert.

    Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have been examining the timeline and also are investigating the incident.

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee launched a spill probe Thursday, with panel leaders writing Plains with questions about its maintenance history on Line 901 and Line 903, the extensive corrosion documented in the firm’s May 5 inspection of Line 901 and its plans for responding to spills. The lawmakers are also seeking a detailed timeline of any Line 901-related activity in the 48 hours leading up to the May 19 rupture and the response afterward.

    They are giving Plains until July 10 to respond.

    Panel leaders also sent a letter to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration questioning the agency’s delays in implementing a 2011 law meant to boost oversight and “help prevent such tragedies.” Of the law’s 42 congressional mandates, 17 are still incomplete, the lawmakers said.

    The House members asked for an explanation of the delays and the status of other pipeline safeguards by July 14.