Regulators studying plans to build an oil pipeline off the coast of Orange County in the 1970s examined the potential damage in the event of a ship’s anchor strike, but downplayed the risks, concluding that the oil spill would be minor, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
In 1978, regulators predicted that a leak would result in a spill of just 50 barrels of oil, reports show. That’s less than one-tenth the minimum amount of oil that leaked into waters off the coast of Orange County this month in an accident that investigators said was caused by a cargo ship waiting to enter a port anchored and crashed into a pipeline.
Pipeline experts now say that regulators grossly underestimated the potential for an anchor disaster and missed an opportunity that could trigger additional safety measures and prevent a major oil spill that has polluted a long stretch of Orange County beaches.
“Their presentations were fatally flawed…. In no scenario can you get 50 barrels, ”said Richard Kuprevich, president of Accufacts Inc., a gas and liquid pipeline research company. “If there were a more frank discussion of what might have happened, there would probably have been a discussion of what action to take because the risks were grossly understated.”
Officials investigating the spill say the anchor likely snagged the pipeline at some point shortly after it started moving along the seabed, weakening its structure and eventually causing a spill that spilled at least 588 barrels of oil. The researchers are targeting ships that were anchored in the area in January, when strong winds could cause the ship to drift and anchor over line.
A review of federal data published in the Times shows that strikes against anchors have caused pipelines to burst, spilling hazardous liquids only 17 times since 1986, but sometimes causing devastating damage.
The 1988 spill off the coast of Texas was more than 26 times larger than in California waters this month. Three years ago, a barge navigating the waters between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas accidentally dropped anchor and dragged the 12,000-pound device along the bottom of the lake, cutting two of the six submarine cables that power Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and damaging a third, spilling about 800 gallons. dielectric mineral oil, found by the National Transportation Safety Board in a 2019 report. Officials estimate that the cable repair alone cost $ 100 million. The anchor also hit and damaged, but did not damage, the controversial Line 5 pipeline that transports oil from western Canada to eastern Canada along the Great Lakes.
Although anchor strikes are rare, severe weather is associated with their occurrence. Much of the offshore oil drilling infrastructure is designed to withstand so-called 100-year storms, gigantic rainfalls that are estimated to have a 1% chance of hitting this location every year. But some climate experts warn that these forecasts may not account for climate change, which often results in more severe weather.
The hurricanes, in particular, damaged underwater infrastructure, causing winds strong enough to knock even large container ships off course, break offshore platform berths, and force both to drag heavy anchors across the seabed.
Off the coast of Southern California, government regulators signed a plan decades ago to bury a section of the pipeline that runs more than 15 miles between a technology platform called Elly and the shore. The recessed section will run from the shore to the Long Beach breakwater. From there, the rest of the line runs along the seabed.
Originally, the buried line was supposed to be 4 feet below the seabed. But following fears by the US Coast Guard that the depth might not be enough to prevent damage from maritime activities, company officials agreed to bury the line at least 10 feet below the seabed.
Analysis included in an Environmental Impact Report prepared in 1978 by the U.S. Geological Survey, State Land Commission and the Port of Long Beach confirmed that there is still the potential for an anchor strike along the unburied portion of the line that runs nearly 11 miles along the ocean floor. …
But this downplayed the likelihood of a spill.
“There remains the possibility that the pipeline could be ruptured or breached as a result of an accident, such as an emergency or accidental anchoring,” it said. “The amount of oil spilled from the pipeline in the event of such an accident is likely to be small due to the nature of the oil and the configuration of the pipeline.”
Some of the analysis was based on an overly rosy prediction that the pipeline leak detection system would work efficiently enough to prevent larger spills, experts said.
Robert Bea, emeritus professor of engineering, project management and systems at the University of California, Berkeley, said the estimate for a 50-barrel spill was “sketchy” and that there seemed no evidence to support such a scenario.
“It’s like what I call a guess,” said Bee, who helped design the Elly oil refining platform.
Now investigators are faced with the task of determining when the anchor strike occurred and which vessel was involved. In some prior cases of rupture, anchor strikes were strongly suspected, but researchers were unable to confirm the cause.
One February morning in 1988, the employees of Amoco Pipeline Co. in Texas City, Texas, noticed that the amount of oil entering the onshore terminal was less than the amount pumped out of the ocean.
At first they thought the shortage was a measurement error. A helicopter sent to investigate confirmed a dire scenario: an oil slick on the water surface 15 to 20 miles long and up to 3 miles wide. More than 15,500 barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, according to reports.
Divers inspecting the pipeline found that it was warped and deformed. More than 100 feet of the pipeline was raised eight feet above the seabed. Parts of its concrete exterior were missing. Along with a horizontal crack in the pipe wall, divers noticed “marks on the pipe that indicated external physical contact with a foreign object,” according to a federal incident report.
Based on their observations, officials determined that “the damage to the pipeline was likely caused by an anchor snagging the pipeline,” the records show.
But the discovery was never definitive, federal officials say, and because the spill occurred more than 30 miles off the coast, it received little attention. According to the documents, the pipeline operator believed it was “unpredictable and inevitable.”
In 1997, another pipeline ruptured between two offshore oil rigs, spilling up to 15 barrels of oil off the Louisiana coast. The cause was thought to be the ship’s anchor, but records show it has never been confirmed.
In other incidents, the culprits were identified almost immediately.
In 2006, a pipeline 30 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas, was “torn in two” when the tanker crew did not notice the ship was drifting and dragging anchor, eventually cutting the pipeline and pouring about 870 barrels of oil into the ocean. , records show.
Federal investigators determined that, according to the records, the crew did not respond to the drift alarm and did not notice the pipeline on the navigation chart.
From the records, the captain quickly realized what had happened and that the ship had crossed the pipeline. The crew members were tested for alcohol to find out if drunkenness was the reason for their negligence. The records say their results were negative.
In 2018, a catastrophic strike from a pipeline anchor in Indonesian waters killed five fishermen when oil caught fire on the surface. For Indonesian officials, the culprit was apparent when they determined that there was only one vessel in the area at the time of the spill.
The prosecutor’s office accused the captain of the coal locomotive who struck the pipeline of violating environmental legislation. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.