Plains All American Pipeline Oil leak incident-pipeline did not have auto shutoff?

May 25,2015, Santa Barbara– The oil pipeline that leaked more than a hundred thousand gallons into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, apparently did not make use of Functional Safety measures, that are common in these kind of installations, say news reports. Most modern pipelines have automatic shutoff valves that can be shut off if sensors and transmitters detect trouble, to avoid leakages and spill (including sophisticated Emergency Shutdown systems such as HIPPS- also known as High Integrity Pressure Protection Systems), but this pipeline did not have any of these important safety features. See source here

The pipeline’s original owners successfully fought a court battle, in the late 1980s with County officials and argued that the county/state rules of automatic shutoff did not apply because it was part of an “interstate” pipeline network and federal rules could only apply (apparently federal rules at that time did not mandate automatic shutoff or emergency pipeline shutdown systems).

The pipeline had one valve that was supposed to be shut in case of reverse flow and three other valves, but all were manually controlled via operators located in a Texas control room, more than 1300 miles away! It is too early to say whether an automatic leak detection system coupled with a safety logic solver and automatic shutoff valves could have reduced the amount and extent of the spill, but prima facie it does appear to be so.

The spill apparently killed a lot of marine animals and related wildlife including sea lions, elephant seals, and pelicans. It also damaged the Refugio state beach near Santa Barbara.  On 20th May, after it became clear that the spill was more serious than earlier thought, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the Santa Barbara County coast, closing fisheries in an area that stretches 23 miles long and 7 miles wide and banning the use of Refugio State Beach.

This accident is a good example how good engineering practices including Functional Safety measures (following standards such as ISA S84/ IEC 61511) for pipelines can reduce the incidence as well as severity of spills and leaks. No doubt the initial engineering and additional safety equipment would cost money, but then it is nothing if compared to the environmental costs of not doing it, as well as expected fines and citations in future.

As of this writing reportedly about one fifth of the oil that leaked has been recovered, but the damaged portion of the pipeline has still not been extracted.

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