The pipeline company that has accepted responsibility for Tuesday's Santa Barbara oil spill had previously pledged to improve its pipeline safety and leak detection technology as part of a federal consent decree, court records show.
Plains All-American Pipeline LP inked that deal in 2010 to settle a lawsuit Environmental Protection Agency had filed against it over Clean Water Act violations, citing 10 separate spills that had collectively dumped 273,000 gallons of oil in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. The Houston-based company agreed to pay $3.25 million in civil penalties and spend millions more to upgrade its system.
The Houston-based company didn't admit or deny liability with that settlement, but it did promise to implement "enhanced integrity management and corrosion control" and "enhanced pipeline leak detection" to minimize the risk of future pipeline leaks.
Tuesday's spill released some 21,000 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara channel, Plains estimated. The source has been traced inland to a leak from a 24-inch underground pipeline that terminates at the Las Flores Canyon oil processing facility.
As much as 105,000 gallons could have escaped from the pipeline, said pipeline operations director Rick McMichael.
What caused the pipe to fail wasn't immediately clear. A team of federal investigators from the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) was responding to the site Tuesday, according to Michelle Rogow, EPA Emergency Response Coordinator.
"Once we identified the leak as coming from our pipeline, we shut it down immediately," said Darren Palmer, Plains District Manager.
Palmer acknowledged that monitoring equipment had not alerted the company to the leak before receiving outside notification. A leak detection probe known as a "pig" had been run through the pipeline two weeks earlier, Palmer said, but the results had not yet been "interpreted" before the leak became apparent.
"How come they didn't know? How come our people had to notify them of the leak?" asked Doreen Farr, a Santa Barbara County supervisor who represents the Goleta coast, where the spill occurred. "If it had been monitored and inspected, it should not have been leaking as it did."
The pipeline flows about 2,000 barrels — or more than 100,00 gallons — per hour, Palmer said. A year ago, an estimated 10,000 gallons of oil spurted from another Plains pipeline in an industrial section of the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, adjacent to Glendale.
"We're talking about a repeat offender here," said Damon Nagami, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he directs the Souther California Ecosystems Project. "I think a lot of questions need to be asked of the company, and of regulators."
"Ideally, you'd like a pipeline to shut off automatically when a leak is detected. That did not happen in Santa Barbara," Nagami added.
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He cited research showing that automatic leak detection systems in general fail 95 percent of the time.
"The bottom line is, there are risks when it comes to the oil transportation infrastructure," Nagami said.
So far this year, a total of 18 pipeline "incidents" have occurred in California, causing total property damage of nearly $44 million dollars, according to PHMSA. Moreover, 11 injuries and one fatality were reported.
It has been decades since a serious spill in Santa Monica Bay, west of Los Angeles County.
In 1993, Chevron agreed to pay half a million dollars in fines and restitution after some 20,000 gallons of petroleum spilled during a mishap at the offshore tanker berth connected to the company's El Segundo refinery via an underwater pipeline.