The pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of oil on the California coast was the only pipe of its kind in the county not required to have an automatic shut-off valve because of a court fight nearly three decades ago, a county official said.
The original owner of the pipeline skirted the Santa Barbara County requirement by successfully arguing in court in the late 1980s that it should be subject to federal oversight because the pipeline is part of an interstate network, said Kevin Drude, deputy director of the county’s Energy and Minerals Division. Auto shut-off valves are not required by federal regulators.
“It’s the only major pipeline that doesn’t have auto shut-off,” Drude said. “For us, it’s routine.”
Federal regulators are investigating the cause of Tuesday’s leak that spilled up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil from an underground pipe into a culvert and as much as 21,000 gallons into the ocean at Refugio State Beach. The spill killed untold numbers of fish, at least five pelicans and a sea lion. It also mired other wildlife, including an elephant seal, in the muck.
Plains All American Pipeline was still draining the pipe and trying to locate the leak Saturday.
Plains said the pipeline had one valve to shut it down if oil flowed in the opposite direction and three valves controlled by operators in its Midland, Texas, control room.
Plains defended its people approach to manually shutting down the system, saying it’s the standard across the country for liquid pipelines.
While it’s not known if an auto shut-off valve would have detected the leak and reduced the size of the spill, environmentalists have criticized the lack of such a device, saying it could have averted or minimized the disaster.
A Plains employee discovered the leak early Tuesday afternoon, about three hours after mechanical issues occurred with the pipeline, according to the company. The pipe was restarted for about 20 minutes before a pump failed and then it was shut down because of changes in pressure.
Plains All American subsidiaries have reported at least 223 accidents along their lines and spilled a combined 864,300 gallons of hazardous liquids since 2006. The company has been subject to 25 enforcement actions and tallied damages topping $32 million.