Monday, September 26, 2022

California oil spill offers more mysteries than answers


Almost a week after a 13-inch rupture of a subsea pipeline led to a massive oil spill off the coast of Southern California, evidence continues to accumulate, but the mystery of what caused the rupture and who is ultimately responsible remains unresolved.

Like other investigations into mechanical failures that led to disastrous results, understanding the chain of events that led to the spill is played out like a twist-filled thriller. Tracking is underway. Some have already reached a dead end; others are still unfolding.

It is unclear how the pipeline ruptured, when the damage was done and what could have prevented it. Even the exact location of the pipe running along the coast of Orange County also raises some doubts.

“The most frustrating thing is that information reaches investigators at the speed of light, and they can be bombarded with insignificant noise,” said Richard Kuprevich, who, he says, has investigated hundreds of pipeline incidents over 20 years. “They have to filter it out.”

As the containment and mitigation efforts advanced, nearly a dozen government agencies were involved in an investigation that had already led them to the port of Auckland, where authorities spoke Wednesday with the operators of a German container ship that was on site at the time. spill. However, the vessel was allowed to continue its voyage and the owners of the vessel stated that the vessel was no longer under surveillance.

Kuprevich warns that answers can take time.

“We should have an answer in a couple of months about how long it will take for a forensic examination,” he said, which should involve removing the damaged pipe from nearly 100 feet of water. “They should be able to determine with a high degree of certainty what the most likely failure mechanism is.”

Crude oil is shown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Newport Beach on October 3.

Crude oil is shown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Newport Beach on October 3.

(Richard Brum / US Coast Guard)

Of course, it will be easier to determine the cause of the gap than to find out who is to blame. “It will take more time to find out who, than why,” Kuprevich said. “Why follows science. One who follows the rule of law. “

As of Thursday, the most likely suspect continued to be a shipping vessel that could have hit and possibly snagged the pipeline while anchoring. But identifying this ship will need to establish when the pipeline was damaged. This job is complicated by the likelihood that the damage occurred several months before the pipe cracked.

Answering these questions is critical not only to prevent a similar spill, but also to determine liability that can extend to criminal negligence.

The Huntington Beach Boardwalk performer has already sued the pipeline operator in federal court, alleging the leak would harm his business and exposed him to hazardous chemicals. The lawsuit is seeking class action status.

On Thursday, another lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of the owners of the Laguna Beach coastal property also demands confirmation of a class action claim and damages for loss of pleasure, potentially reduced property values ​​and diminished rental income.

Rebecca Ore, the commander of the US Coast Guard Los Angeles-Long Beach, declined to give an estimate of the cost of the cleanup. “We are still in the early stages of this process, and the response may require a long-term effort,” she said.

But Kuprevich expects these efforts could “easily grow to hundreds of millions.”

“Oil spills are generally not cheap, and they are a loud oil spill with a high-profile investigation,” he said. “I’ve seen minor pipeline failures that have reached billions of dollars.”

Orange County Observer Katrina Foley said there is a federal liability trust that will be used to reimburse government agencies for cleaning costs. It is unclear how much money is in the trust.

“We track every minute, every shipment, piece of equipment,” Foley said. “All government agencies are working to submit compensation. I have no reason to believe that we will not be reimbursed. ”

Seven days of investigation know what is clear: The 16-inch pipeline is nearly 18 miles long and connects three offshore oil platforms – Ellen, Ellie and Eureka – to an onshore refinery at Long Beach Port.

The infrastructure is owned by Amplify Energy Corp., a state-owned energy company headquartered in Houston. His portfolio, according to his website, includes “mature, legacy oil and natural gas fields.”

Amplify has owned this property for nine years. It was originally developed by Shell Oil Co. in the late 1970s and went into production in January 1981. It is one of more than two dozen offshore oil platforms that are well known off the coast.

Late Friday night, October 1, Newport Beach resident Jolie Sheppik noticed the smell, “as if they climbed out into the area and spilled.”

But even when Sheppik and others began calling authorities, Ellie’s control platform workers were unaware of the problem on the pipeline until 2:30 am Saturday, when they received a warning indicating low pressure, according to federal regulators.

Low pressure warnings do not always mean a reset in the line, and “it is unreasonable to expect the operator to disconnect the line whenever he hears a low pressure alarm,” Kuprevich said, but “something doesn’t look right here.”

In comments this week, Martin Wheelsher, chief executive of Amplify Energy, did not explain what warnings his company might have received or what initial action they took.

However, he said that shortly after 8:00 am on Saturday, workers conducting a line inspection noticed the glittering water and “immediately” sent them back to offshore platforms by radio, where workers launched an incident response plan. Offshore platforms and pumping operations were “immediately stopped.”

About half an hour later, Amplify Energy notified its crisis and emergency management company as well as federal regulators, Wilshire said, adding, “If we knew about something on Friday night, I promise you, we would stop everything immediately. operations “.

The first suspect was corrosion. “Steel pipes want corrosion,” Kuprevich said.

Even if the pipeline was damaged by the ship’s anchor, corrosion could play a role in the rupture, slowly damaging the steel where it was weakened or stressed, but the researchers will also take other factors into account, regardless of the impact of the anchor. or corrosion, including a manufacturing defect at welding sites.

Given these possibilities, the role that inspectorates could play in spill prevention will be scrutinized.

Offshore platforms and pipelines are monitored by a range of federal regulatory bodies tasked with periodic inspections of aging equipment. In California alone, their work is focused on more than two dozen platforms from north of Point Conception to Huntington Beach. Some are in state waters, some in federal waters, and they are all in their 40s.

“This is not a reliable surveillance system,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Recently released documents from the Federal Bureau of Environmental Safety and Enforcement show that the broken pipeline has been inspected every two years since 2007 by private contractors hired by Amplify Energy.

According to a consolidated report from federal investigators, in 2019, repairs were carried out at three areas where pipeline deformation occurred. “Internal review is acceptable and no corrective action is recommended at this time,” the bureau concluded.

But as rumors mount about the role that corrosion and lax government control could play in the spill, the Joint Joint Command overseeing the investigation announced on Tuesday that divers and remote-controlled submarine personnel discovered that the 4,000-foot section of the pipeline had been forcibly moved.

“The pipeline is essentially taut like a bowstring,” Willscher said, describing some force that pulled the pipe about 105 feet in an almost “semicircle.”

The suspicion that the anchor may have snagged and pulled the pipeline comes at a time when disruptions to the global supply chain due to the pandemic have resulted in a fivefold increase in traffic over the past few years. The bottleneck required many more ships to anchor before entering ports.

Soon after the spill, early analysis of satellite imagery indicated that the container ship could have crossed the pipeline thousands of feet from its anchorage.

However, after examining the images, the nonprofit environmental monitoring group Skytruth said it found no evidence of drift.

On Wednesday, the Coast Guard boarded the ship, which was at the time in Oakland, and then released it without explanation. The ship is currently sailing to Mexico.

The owner of the vessel, Hapag-Lloyd, knew that some of the sea traffic information indicated that the vessel was moving while at anchor, but that “does not seem right,” a company spokesman said. According to him, the captain of the ship provided logs, updated hourly, from which it is clear that the ship did not leave the anchorage for several days.

Tracking the ship in charge could prove extremely difficult. According to federal reports, investigators have not always been able to find the culprit for the alleged anchor strikes on subsea pipelines, or even conclude that the damage was caused by the anchor.

Investigators continue to investigate the possibility of damage to the pipeline by other vessels, but some are raising the question of whether the pipeline may have moved so that its position on charts was no longer accurate.

While the investigation continues, Kuprevich advises to be patient. The first priority is to contain and mitigate the consequences of the spill. More answers will appear over time, he said.

“The public tends to draw conclusions that outstrip science,” he said. “They think they can fix this problem right away. But there is a due process of law in these procedures. The rule of law is being applied and the process takes time. ”

Times authors Robert J. Lopez, Richard Winton, Hannah Frye, Rosanna Xia, and Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
Nation World News is the fastest emerging news website covering all the latest news, world’s top stories, science news entertainment sports cricket’s latest discoveries, new technology gadgets, politics news, and more.

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