Communication Problems Delayed Response to Santa Barbara Oil Spill

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As thousands of gallons of crude oil from a broken pipeline poured into the Pacific Ocean off the Santa Barbara coast last month, its operator was unable to contact workers to get information it needed to notify federal officials, according to records released this week.

What’s the Problem?

June 25, 2015 – Plains All American Pipeline employees needed the exact location of the May 19 spill and an estimate of the size of the rupture before they could contact the National Response Center, according to records issued yesterday to federal authorities.

However, Plains workers near the broken pipe were dealing with “immediate demands and distractions,” and were unable to be reached by company personnel in Bakersfield, CA, the records said.

One Plains employee, with the help of firefighters, used shovels in an attempt to build a makeshift berm to slow the oil’s spread. Workers also made “various calls by cellphone to mobilize resources, make notifications and coordinate activities,” according to Plains’ accountant.

Pipeline Operator Criticized for Slow Response

The Houston, TX-based pipeline operator has been criticized for how long it took to relay information to government officials on the oil spill, even though the company’s internal planning documents repeatedly stress the need for rapid response.

Meanwhile, cleanup costs have topped $92 million, according to Plains spokesman Patrick Hodgins. Cleanup crews have spent weeks removing contaminated soil and scraping rocks with putty knives.

Exxon Mobil Halts 3 Platforms

Also this week, Exxon Mobil halted operations at 3 offshore platforms because it couldn’t deliver oil to refineries. Santa Barbara County officials rejected an emergency application by the company to truck oil to refineries until the pipeline can be fixed.

Pipeline operators are required by federal law to notify the National Response Center of a leak at the earliest possible moment. State laws require immediate notification of an oil spill or a threatened spill.

Oil Spill Timeline

At around 11:30 a.m. on May 19, a Plains operator remotely shut down Line 901 because of “pressure anomalies.” An hour later, firefighters responding to a call about the smell of oil near Refugio State Beach discovered the spill. At that time, Plains workers who were nearby went to the beach.

Another hour passed before a Plains employee confirmed the spill at 1:30 p.m. Somehow it took another 90 minutes before the company notified the response center, but by then the Coast Guard was already on the way.

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