Investigators probe whether damage to oil pipeline occurred weeks before spill

Damage to a pipeline that sent up to 131,000 gallons of oil into the waters off the Orange County coast could have occurred weeks or months before the spill, two sources familiar with the investigation told The Times on Friday.

Coast Guard investigators, who have been probing whether a cargo ship dragged the concrete-encased steel pipeline with an anchor, have examined several ships that were in the area last week and concluded that none of them are likely responsible for the damage, sources said. The sources spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Investigators are now trying to determine whether a vessel could have dragged its anchor over the pipeline during a period of storms weeks earlier, displacing the line 105 feet and eventually leading to the leak. They are also trying to determine how long the pipe had been displaced. Officials have yet to find clear evidence of a recent anchor drag, one of the sources said.

Video from a remotely operated vehicle taken Monday appears to show a portion of the 4,000-foot section that had been displaced from the nearly 18-mile oil pipeline. Divers reported and video showed a 13-inch tear in the pipe, according to the joint unified command overseeing the spill response.

Officials say damage to the pipeline, which runs from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, caused a minimum of about 24,696 gallons and a maximum of 131,000 gallons of oil to spill into the ocean, resulting in a slick that has stalked the Orange County coast for nearly a week. Oil has washed up from Huntington Beach to San Diego County, fouling beaches and threatening sensitive marine habitats, some of which are on the ancestral homelands of the Acjachemen and Tongva people.

Coast Guard investigators plan to bring in experts to determine how long ago the pipe was damaged and whether the leak was sudden or gradually worsened over time, sources said. The Coast Guard sent down its own team of divers to gather evidence for the probe separate from the dive team hired by the joint unified command.

Based on an examination of the ships’ navigation and movements, investigators concluded that the cargo ships Rotterdam Express and Zim Sau Paulo were not involved. The Coast Guard also ruled out four other ships that crossed the pipeline Oct. 1. This led investigators to consider whether ships near the pipeline during storms in the weeks or months prior to the spill may have snagged it with an anchor.

The timeline presented by the energy company at the center of the oil spill is also under scrutiny.

Amplify Energy Corp., the pipeline operator’s parent company, said the firm first learned of the leak at 8:09 a.m. Saturday. But federal regulators said this week that employees in the control room of the subsidiary that operates the San Pedro Bay Pipeline received a low-pressure alarm, “indicating a possible failure,” about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Regulators said it took more than three hours before the pipeline was shut down.

Martyn Willsher, Amplify’s president and chief executive, denied that anyone at the firm was alerted to the leak at 2:30 a.m. by a change of oil pressure in the pipe but would not elaborate, saying the facts would emerge during the investigation.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and we are extremely sorry this happened,” Willsher said. “The cause of this will still need to be investigated, but regardless of the cause we are going to do everything we can to make things right for all of those impacted areas and individuals as quickly as we can.”

Pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz said pressure-loss alerts in a pipeline are usually not caused by a release of oil, and it isn’t reasonable to expect an operator to clamp a line whenever an alarm goes off. But he said he was surprised it took the operator in this case hours to shut down the pipeline.

“Something doesn’t look right here,” he said.

Times staff writer Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.

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