Congress probing California oil spill that blackened beaches

AP News
Posted: Jun 25, 2015 9:03 PM
Congress probing California oil spill that blackened beaches

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A congressional committee Thursday opened a probe into an oil pipeline rupture on the Central California coast that spread to the Pacific Ocean and washed up goo on beaches as far as 100 miles away.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked operator Plains All American Pipeline for detailed information on maintenance of the failed line, including how it addressed corrosion, and inspection records for five years.

The panel also wants the company to explain what it did in the hours leading up to the break near Santa Barbara, and how it reported the problem. The spill was estimated at up to 101,000 gallons.

The Texas-based company has faced criticism for how long it took to relay information to the federal government on the break, even though its internal planning documents repeatedly stress the importance of notifying the government of a leak as quickly as possible.

In a letter to Plains CEO Greg Armstrong, the committee said it wanted to understand the circumstances leading up to the break, as well as what steps the company had taken to maintain the integrity of the line.

The cause of the accident is being investigated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Earlier this month, the agency released preliminary findings that said the break occurred along a badly corroded section that had worn away to a fraction of an inch in thickness. An estimated 21,000 gallons entered the ocean.

In a separate letter Thursday, the committee asked the pipeline administration for an update of what it called long overdue pipeline safety rules.

The panel said the California spill raised questions about the agency's oversight of pipeline safety, and added that the agency had failed to complete 17 of 42 requirements Congress outlined in 2011 to help the administration prevent spills.

The agency "has failed to reach important decisions and issue regulations concerning pipeline damage prevention, automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves ... and accident and incident notification," the committee wrote.

Company officials this week said cleanup costs had reached $92 million.

Meanwhile, a Santa Barbara County beachfront property owner became the latest in a string of people to file proposed class-action lawsuits against the company. Alexandra Geremia's lawsuit, filed Tuesday, seeks to represent more than 3,000 other coastal landowners in Southern California against Plains All American for the spill.

Popular campgrounds have been closed, commercial fishing has been prohibited nearby, and nearly 300 dead marine mammals and birds have been found after the spill.

"Oil invaded ... beachfront properties, covering them with toxic crude, coating the shoreline, and clinging to rocks, sand, and the animals it touched," the lawsuit said. "Noxious odor of crude oil has permeated the air, drenched wildlife with oil, and left miles of previously pristine shoreline covered in thick black tar."

The lawsuit mirrors others filed this month in Los Angeles federal court that mention the number of spills Plains has had in the past decade and alleges the Texas company should have had automatic shut-off valves that could have prevented California's worst coastal spill in 25 years.

The pipeline is the only major one of its kind in the county without such valves because its original owner successfully sued decades ago, contending it was under the jurisdiction of federal regulators and not subject to county regulations.

Such valves aren't required under federal law, and Plains said an accidental shut-off could create pressure problems.

The company, which has reported 229 spills since 2006, has said it regrets the incident and is addressing claims filed against it. The company said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Three other lawsuits seeking class-action status have been filed by a commercial fisherman, a Santa Barbara shop owner and a tour guide. All said the spill had harmed their livelihood and that of others who earn a living from the sea or from the area's bustling tourist industry.

El Capitan State Beach and its campground, which have been closed since the spill, are scheduled to reopen Friday. Refugio State Beach is expected to be closed until at least July 9.