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California Pipeline Spill Could Have Been Prevented Says Leading Scientist

Experts say flawed technology and perhaps even human error may have led to the rupture of the pipeline that burst in California last month, spilling up to 2,400 barrels of crude oil onto the Santa Barbara coastline.

A report by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), issued June 3, said inspectors found that corrosion had eaten away more than 45 percent of the wall of the pipeline, leaving it only 1/16th of an inch thick. It also identified three repairs that had been made to the pipeline to repair corrosion near spot in the conduit where the leak occurred.

Related: Against Odds, Conventional Crude Oil Production Reaches New High

On May 19, a hole in the pipeline, owned and operated by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, led to release of crude onto an immaculate portion of California’s Santa Barbara coastline and into the Pacific Ocean. It left a nine-mile oil slick along the coast and closed two state-run beaches.

Plains All American Pipeline said it immediately noticed fluctuations in the pressure inside the pipeline and shut it down within 30 minutes, limiting the extent of the spill. But a U.S. Coast Guard officer overseeing the cleanup said it may be several months before the original condition of the affected coastline is restored.

The PHMSA report isn’t yet able to determine the exact cause of the leak, but the accident identified some failings in not only the equipment used to assess the pipeline’s integrity, but also the people who analyze the equipment’s results.

Related: OPEC Set To Play The Waiting Game

The equipment in question is called a “smart pig,” which is used to detect pipeline corrosion. But that term is “an oxymoron,” says Robert Bea, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, with three decades’ experience in the pipeline industry. He told The Associated Press that the device isn’t as brisk as its name might imply.

First, Bea notes, Plains All American Pipeline had used a smart pig two weeks before the spill to test the pipeline, but the company hadn’t received its results by the time the spill occurred. It normally takes several weeks of analysis to analyze the smart pig’s findings on the presence of cracks, the thickness of the pipeline’s walls and the extent of corrosion on the conduit’s interior and exterior walls.
But the results are not as effective if they improperly interpreted by human analysts.

“As you may guess, the primary weaknesses show up in the human interpretation,” Bea said. “They’re only as smart as the people who are interpreting the signals.” He said human error is responsible for 80 percent of such lapses.

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Bea said he once conducted a review of a pipeline accident in which a technician tasked with interpreting the tests overlooked a fault in the pipeline, which later failed under the pressure of its contents.

How did the technician miss this defect? According to Bea, the day before he conducted the analysis, his wife had told him she was leaving him. “His mind was elsewhere,” Bea said.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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