In a rebuke of Chevron remarkable for its swiftness, federal pipeline officials forbid the oil giant late Wednesday from restarting its troubled east-bench pipeline, saying it is unsafe for life, property and the environment.
They also warned that “other areas of this pipeline could experience” a leak similar to the Dec. 1 spill that belched 500 barrels of crude oil at Red Butte Garden. During the past six months, 1,300 barrels have leaked from the same pipeline 100 yards apart.
Wednesday’s “Corrective Action Order” from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) demands the pipeline remain out of service until Chevron meets short-and long-term safety regulations.
After a June 11-12 spill, it was five months before Chevron received a violation notice. This corrective action took a week.
“I appreciate the quick response of PHMSA,” said Mayor Ralph Becker, fresh off a three-day trip to Washington to huddle with regulators. “The corrective order shows they understand and acknowledge our public-safety concerns.”
Preliminary results from PHMSA’s probe suggest Chevron left water in the pipeline from a four-hour pressure test done June 20 to check the repairs from the first leak (the line reopened June 21).
Following freezing and subfreezing temperatures in Salt Lake City and after a shutdown of the line Dec. 1 for routine maintenance just hours before the second leak, a six-inch valve at Red Butte failed, according to the compliance order.
“The preliminary findings indicate that the failure to remove all of the test fluid (water) used during the June 2010 hydrostatic pressure tests or to take appropriate action to ensure that any remaining water would not adversely affect the operation of the ... line may have caused or contributed to the December 2010 failure.”
Chevron should have made sure all fluids had been removed from the valve after the test in accordance with manufacturers’ specifications, the agency said. And antifreeze should have been injected to ensure any residual water did not affect the valve’s operation. PHMSA also faulted the company’s “failure to perform the required maintenance” after June’s pressure test.
Chevron officials said they had not seen the order late Wednesday and declined to respond. “When we do get the letter, we’d like to have the appropriate amount of time to review it,” company spokesman Mickey Driver said. “We want to be very thoughtful in how we respond.”
The order was signed by Jeffrey D. Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety.
“Safety is the number one priority,” Julia Valentine, spokeswoman for the pipeline safety office, said in a statement, “and this corrective order is an important tool in protecting the communities and environment around this pipeline.”
Investigators saved “as-yet-unidentified fluid” in one of the valve’s components when they removed the leaky valve near the entrance to Red Butte amphitheater on Saturday. The fluid was preserved and sent to a lab for further analysis.
The decision to keep the pipeline off was based on a review of records, a physical inspection and interviews with Chevron employees.
The order also chastises Chevron for the slow response to the latest spill, noting the pipeline is in proximity to buildings on the University of Utah campus and Red Butte Creek.
“Furthermore, Chevron did not identify the location of the current release for more than two hours,” it reads, “despite the fact that the Red Butte vault is approximately eight miles from the Salt Lake City refinery and a prior failure had occurred in that area six months earlier.”
City Councilwoman Jill Remington Love praised the federal agency. “I’m sure it probably helped that the mayor was in Washington, D.C., for the past three days,” Love said. “This pipeline is too close to the stream corridor and people’s backyards and fault lines. We need to take it seriously.”
Becker wants even more intervention. He has called for a third party — in addition to Chevron and PHMSA — to sign off on the pipeline’s safety before it is allowed to resume operations. City officials note the president of Chevron Pipeline Co. has agreed that an independent review is appropriate.
City leaders also believe they have PHMSA’s assurance on that point. “Our understanding is they are supporting us in what we feel we need to do as a city to deal with it,” Becker spokeswoman Lisa Harrison Smith said, “specifically a third-party investigation.”
When asked about the third-party probe, Valentine, PHMSA’s spokeswoman, said the agency would “work to ensure that the pipeline is not placed back into service until it is safe to do so.”
“[PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman] told Mayor Becker that PHMSA will be happy to partner with Salt Lake City and other stakeholders to promote and ensure the pipeline’s long-term safety,” Valentine said in an e-mail.
Shortly after getting off a plane Wednesday, Becker said he “expects” the agency’s support in keeping the pipeline closed “until our concerns regarding life, property and the environment are addressed.”
The 182-mile pipeline runs from Rangely, Colo., to a Chevron refinery in northern Salt Lake City. Regulators called the 50-mile stretch from Park City to the refinery — abutting the watershed for 1 million Salt Lake Valley residents — a “high-consequence area.”
The order calls for upgraded detection systems, a quick review of the leaky valve, thorough inspections and even daily patrols of the line.
“It’s clear that a series of safety actions must occur prior to the agency allowing the company to reopen the pipeline,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, whose district was affected by the spill. “Given the alarming circumstance of oil pollution in this sensitive watershed area from two leaks within six months, I believe this is the right thing to do.”
And “appropriate external leak detection” is needed within 60 days.
“Such systems,” the PHMSA says, “must be capable of detecting leaks at the earliest practicable moment and of transmitting all necessary data to appropriate Chevron personnel.”