Regulators underestimated the extent of oil spills in California

Regulators investigating plans for an oil pipeline off the Orange County coast in the 1970s investigated the potential damage in the event of an anchorage attack on a ship, but downplayed the risk and concluded that a resulting spill would be less, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

Regulators predicted in 1978 that a leak would result in a spill of only 50 barrels of oil, records show. That’s less than a tenth of the smallest amount of oil that leaked into the waters off the coast of Orange County this month in an accident that investigators believe was caused when a cargo ship waiting to enter the port lost its anchor and hit the pipeline.

Oil pipeline construction experts now say regulators poorly underestimated the potential disaster from an anchorage attack and missed an opportunity that could have prompted further safeguards and prevented the large-scale oil spill that had plagued long stretches of Orange County beaches.

“Their presentations were fatally deficient…. In no scenario could you come up with 50 barrels, ”said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., which specializes in studies of gas and liquid pipelines. “If there had been more honest discussion about what could possibly happen, it would probably have initiated discussions about what actions to take because the risks were severely underestimated.”

Officials investigating the spill say an anchor probably caught the pipeline at some point shortly after it started running on top of the ocean floor, weakening its structure and eventually causing a gash that spilled at least 588 barrels of oil. Investigators are entering ships anchoring in the area in January, as strong winds could have caused a ship to drift and its anchor to pull across the line.

A Times review of federal data shows that anchor attacks have caused broken pipelines that have only resulted in dangerous liquid spills 17 times since 1986, but sometimes they have caused devastating damage.

A spill off the Texas coast in 1988 was more than 26 times the size of this month in California waters. Three years ago, a barge moving through the waters between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan accidentally dropped its anchor and towed a 12,000-pound unit along the lake bottom, disconnecting two of the six submarine cables that supply power to Michigan. upper peninsula and damaged a third that spilled about 800 liters of dielectric mineral oil, National Transportation Safety Board found in a report from 2019. Officials estimated that the cost of repairing the cables alone was $ 100 million. The anchor also struck and bulged, but did not break, the controversial Line 5 pipeline that transports oil from western to eastern Canada under the Great Lakes.

Although anchor attacks are rare, severe weather is associated with their occurrence. Most offshore oil drilling infrastructures are designed to withstand so-called 100-year storms, gigantic rainfall events are estimated to have a 1% chance of occurring at this site each year. But some climate experts warn that these predictions may not take into account climate change, which more often brings more intense weather.

Hurricanes in particular have wreaked havoc on underwater infrastructure that has shaken winds strong enough to blow even large container ships off course, break moorings to offshore platforms and leave both pulling heavy anchors across the seabed.

Off the coast of Southern California, state regulators decades ago signed a plan to bury part of the pipeline that runs more than 15 miles between a treatment platform called Elly and the coast. The buried section would run from the shore to the Long Beach pier. From there, the rest of the line lies on top of the seabed.

Initially, the buried part of the line was to be 4 feet below the seabed. But after concerns from the U.S. Coast Guard that the depth might not be enough to prevent damage caused by maritime activities, company officials agreed to bury the line at least 10 feet below the ocean floor.

The analysis – included in an environmental impact report prepared in 1978 by the US Geological Survey, State Lands Commission and Port of Long Beach – acknowledged that there was still a chance of an anchorage attack along the unburied part of the line that runs nearly 11 miles along the ocean floor.

But it downplayed the potential waste.

“There is still a possibility that the pipeline could be broken or pierced by an accident, such as an emergency or accidental anchoring,” the report said. “The amount of oil spilled from the pipeline in the event of such an accident, due to the nature of the oil and the pipeline configuration, would likely be small.”

Part of the analysis was based on an all-too-rosy prediction that a pipeline leak detection system would work efficiently enough to prevent major spills, experts say.

Robert Bea, a professor at UC Berkeley in engineering and project management and systems, said the estimate of 50 barrels of waste was “superficially superficial” and that there did not appear to be data to support such a scenario.

“It sounds like what I call guesstimating,” said Bea, who helped design the oil processing platform Elly.

Now the investigators are tasked with trying to identify when the anchorage attack took place and which ship was involved. In some previous breach cases, anchor attacks were strongly suspected, but investigators could not confirm the cause.

One February morning in 1988, employees at Amoco Pipeline Co. noticed in Texas City, Texas, that the amount of oil flowing to a terminal on land was less than the amount pumped out of the ocean.

At first, they thought the deficiency was a measurement error. A helicopter sent to investigate confirmed the horrific scenario: an oil slick on the surface of the water 15 to 20 miles long and up to 3 miles wide. More than 15,500 barrels of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, according to records.

Divers inspecting the pipeline found it missing and deformed. More than 100 feet of the pipeline was lifted up to eight feet above the seabed. Parts of the concrete exterior were missing. Along with a horizontal crack in the pipe wall, divers observed “markings on it indicating external physical contact with a foreign body,” according to a federal report of the incident.

Based on the observations, officials determined that “the pipeline damage was likely caused by an anchor that hung the pipeline,” records show.

But the finding was never conclusive, federal officials say, and because the spill occurred more than 30 miles off the coast, it attracted little attention. The operator of the pipeline considered it to be “unpredictable and unavoidable”, the records show.

In 1997, another pipeline blew between two offshore oil rigs and spilled up to 15 barrels of oil off the coast of Louisiana. The cause was believed to be a ship’s anchor, but was never confirmed, records show.

In other events, the sinners were clearly almost instantaneous.

In 2006, a pipeline 30 miles offshore from Galveston, Texas, was “split in two” when a tanker crew did not notice the ship drifting and towing its anchor, eventually cutting the pipeline and spilling about 870 barrels of oil into the ocean, records show.

Federal investigators determined that the crew did not respond to an alarm indicating that the ship was drifting and did not notice the pipeline on a chart, according to the records.

The master quickly realized what had happened and that the vessel had crossed the pipeline, the records show. The crew members were given an alcohol test to see if poisoning was the cause of their negligence. They tested negative, the records said.

In 2018, a catastrophic anchorage attack on a pipeline in Indonesian waters killed five fishermen when the oil on the surface caught fire. For Indonesian officials, the responsible party was obvious when they found that there was only one ship in the area at the time of the spill.

Prosecutors accused the captain of the coal carrier that hit the pipeline of violating environmental protection laws. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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