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Report: SoCal Pipeline Operator Took Hours to React to Spill Alarm

The location of the suspected breach in the San Pedro Bay Pipeline (USCG)

Published Oct 6, 2021 2:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an enforcement order released Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation's pipeline regulator said that the operator of the ruptured crude line off Orange County had indication of a breach several hours before it shut down the line or reported a potential spill. 

At about 0230 hours on Saturday morning, the control room personnel for operator Beta Offshore received a low pressure alarm on the San Pedro Bay Pipeline, an indication of a potential breach. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), Beta Offshore reported that the line was shut down at 0601 - more than three hours after the alarm.

Beta Offshore did not report the possibility of a breach to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center (NRC) until 0907, more than six hours after the first alarm.

This timeline does not appear to be consistent with previous public statements from Beta's parent company, Amplify Energy; at a press conference Tuesday, Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher told the OC Register that his firm became aware of the potential leak at about 0800 - more than five hours after the alarm and two hours after his firm had shut down the pipeline.

In its order to Beta Offshore, PHMSA did not address the earliest spill reports sent to NRC, which were submitted by a third-party vessel on Friday evening - long before the first alarm sounded.

An ROV and dive inspection of the full 18-mile length of the San Pedro Bay Pipeline was completed earlier this week. One section of the line measuring 4,000 feet long has been displaced horizontally by about 100 feet, and a portion of this segment has a breach of about 13 inches across. According to PHMSA, the damaged section is located about five miles offshore in about 100 feet of water, within reach for commercial divers.

The unified command for the response believes that the damage is not consistent with normal wear and tear: the steel pipeline is 16 inches in diameter, half an inch thick and coated in concrete, and it is not likely to move on its own. Investigators are considering multiple potential causes, but one possibility is an anchor strike from one of the dozens of vessels waiting in San Pedro Bay. The bay's anchorage is unusually busy due to unprecedented congestion at the twin ports of LA / Long Beach. 

As a precautionary measure, PHMSA has ordered Beta Offshore to keep the pipeline shut down until it authorizes startup. It also ordered a complete test procedure for the full length of the pipeline, including metallurgical testing on the failed pipe wall section. Beta must also review and assess its emergency response and public-notification procedures.