Regulators order pipeline testing, other steps after spill

LOS ANGELES (KTVU-AP) -- The company responsible for a pipeline that spilled thousands of gallons of oil along the California coast was ordered to take a series of steps before it can restart the line, federal regulators said Friday.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration required Plains All American Pipeline to remove the damaged section of pipe, test it and empty the remainder of the line.

The agency said it did not yet know the cause of the leak, which spilled up to 105,000 gallons of crude into a coastal ditch Tuesday. About a fifth of that amount is estimated to have flowed into the sea northwest of Santa Barbara.

Investigators for the agency are looking into the cause of the failure and whether there was something Plains should have known about conditions in the underground pipeline and factors that could have contributed to the accident.

The corrective action order said the 10.6-mile line had recently been inspected, but the results weren't known. Tests of the 24-inch pipe in 2012 found 41 anomalies mostly due to external corrosion, frequently near welds, the agency said.

The company has said there were no previous problems with the pipe.

A corrective action order is issued to protect people, property and the environment. If violations are found, the agency said it would issue a strong enforcement action order.

Plains said it could take weeks or even months before investigators find what caused the disaster.

Bad weather slowed cleanup efforts early Friday at the spill site in Santa Barbara County, where gusty winds whipped up waves as high as 4 feet.

Several days of calm seas had helped crews, but oil skimming vessels had to be brought to shore late Thursday, Santa Barbara news station KEYT-TV reported.

The thick, powerful-smelling crude covered rocks and sand, and six oil-coated pelicans and one juvenile sea lion had been rescued.

Crews have yet to excavate the broken piece of pipeline, which under the law must be done in the presence of federal regulators and a third party, officials with Plains All American Pipeline LP said at a Thursday news conference.

"We have not even uncovered the pipe yet," said Patrick Hodgins, the company's senior director of safety.

The company would not yet say whether part of the cause was two malfunctions that occurred shortly before the spill was discovered.

"We were having some pump problems on the pipeline," said Rick McMichael, another Plains All American representative. "Whether it led to the leak or not is part of our investigation."

Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate 17,800 miles of crude oil and natural gas pipelines across the country, according to the federal agency.

Since 2006, four subsidiaries of Plains All American have reported at least 223 accidents along their lines and been subject to 25 enforcement actions by federal regulators.

The accidents resulted in a combined 864,300 gallons of hazardous liquids spilled and damages topping $32 million. Corrosion was determined to be the cause in roughly 90 of those accidents. Failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 80 times.

Hodgins, of Plains All American, said the company has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2007 on maintenance, repair and enhancement of its equipment.

He defended the company's safety record, saying accidental releases have decreased as the number of miles of pipelines has increased.