This is part one of a two-part series examining the cleanup of an oil spill at a local preserve. Coming Tomorrow: Workers turn over every stone in Oak Glen clean-up, restoration efforts;
cost estimates near $4 million
CINCINNATI—More than a year before dozens of local, state and federal officials scrambled to contain thousands of gallons of crude oil spilling into a Colerain nature preserve, pipeline operators had discovered three dents near where the pipe cracked.
They did not report or take action on those “anomalies,” or 28 others in the same section of 64-year-old pipe, until after the leak occurred, according to a Department of Transportation Corrective Action Order (CAO).
A pipeline operator official said that none of the dents revealed during the 2013 inspection required further action, based on both federal regulations and guidelines included in the pipeline’s government-reviewed safety management plan.
Pipeline operators don’t typically provide individual inspection reports to federal authorities, said Jeff Shields, communications manager for Sunoco Logistics, whose subsidiary Mid-Valley Pipeline, operates the crude oil pipeline that runs through Hamilton County on it path from Texas to Michigan.
“The expectation is that the inspections are carried out and that repairs are completed according to the agreed-upon criteria,” Shields wrote. “These reports and subsequent repair records are subject to PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) review during routine audits.”
While the abnormalities and dents in the pipeline might not have been big enough to trigger immediate action, re-starting the pipeline before investigating those additional dents—some bigger than the ones detected near the crack—does raise questions, according to Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit founded to ensure safer pipelines around the country.
“It’s a little disconcerting that they (PHMSA) didn’t require them to excavate those (additional dents) and determine whether they presented any risk to the pipe before the restart,” Craven said.
The leak was identified and reported to authorities March 18, 2014, when neighbors complained about odors. After the pipeline crack was clamped, the operator restarted the crude oil flow March 23 at a 20 percent pressure reduction.
Order Details Pipe’s Past Accidents, Current Risks
PHMSA, a division of the Department of Transportation that establishes policies and sets standards for hazardous materials transportation, issued the CAO March 25, 2014.
In the CAO, Jeffrey D. Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety, notes the “circumstances surrounding this failure (i.e., a crack in a dent)” and that “. . continued operation of the affected pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment.”
The order notes that in the last nine years, at least two other major spills have occurred along a 121-mile stretch of the approximately 1,000-mile Mid-Valley Pipeline system.
A 2008 spill in Florence, Ky., released 3,650 barrels, or more than 150,000 gallons, of crude oil that impacted the sanitary sewer system and Gunpowder Creek; a 2005 spill along the same line released nearly 7,000 barrels, or almost 300,000 gallons, mostly into the Kentucky River.
By comparison, the Oak Glen spill released an estimated 450 barrels, or close to 19,000 gallons of crude oil.
The Colerain Township spill occurred in a High Consequence Area, or an area “where a release could have the most significant adverse consequences,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website.
In HCAs, pipeline operators are required to take proactive steps to ensure the stability of their equipment, according to PHMSA spokesperson Damon Hill. “If they assess any particular threats, then they have to take action.”
Pipeline Trust’s Craven breaks the regulatory language down further. “You have to fix it, and you have to fix it safely,” she said.
The order requires Sunoco to run the pipeline at a 20 percent reduction until PHMSA’s regional director determines all areas noted in the COA have been addressed, Hill said.
Meanwhile, PHMSA’s work is far from done here. “Our investigation into an accident can take on average 20 months,” he said.
Until then, all findings are preliminary. “I can’t say whether we are going to issue a fine or not,” he said.
Investigation, Digging Continue
Sunoco replaced the section of pipe that leaked April 16, 2014, but the cracked pipe—which was sent to a third-party lab for testing—was not the only area where workers have been digging.
As required by the COA, workers have been checking the sites of the other dents noted in the 2013 inspection.
“There were a number of sections that we dug up and replaced,” Shields said. “We will analyze those as well. That’s part of our integrity management program to look at the pipe aggressively.”
He said those examining the pipeline for the company have prioritized the remaining areas of potential concern and are working toward addressing all of them.
If the investigation reveals that any of the dents identified in 2013 should have been repaired or replaced within regulatory time constraints, which can require repairs to be completed within a year’s time or less, Craven said that would also be cause for “concern.”
She maintained that PHMSA’s chronic lack of sufficient staff and budgets make more oversight of the investigation, and pipeline safety in general, challenging.
PHMSA only has funding for 137 inspectors to oversee millions of miles of pipelines throughout the country, according to an investigation by ProPublica; last month, the agency announced buy-out offers that could shrink staffing by 9 percent.
More than 6,000 miles of new pipelines were planned for construction in the U.S. in 2013 alone.
“They have a huge obligation and they are spread too thin,” Craven said. “As additional pipelines are built, that’s only going to get worse.”
• Read the Oak Glen spill accident report, which estimates final costs at approximately $4 million.
• Check out maps of pipelines by state and county.
• Learn how to identify pipeline markers.
COMING TOMORROW: Clean up continues along creek bed, where oil odors linger