Monday night, the San Francisco Chronicle published its latest map showing exactly where the Alameda oil spill originated from in the Alameda Bay. It now appears that a ruptured pipeline headed to refineries and terminal tanks broke, and then a connected boom from a nearby oil storage tank blew off at about 7:00 pm local time, as the pipeline ruptured.

There are sources that supply their “own rail” material to the oil refineries at the Port of Oakland. The terminal’s bulk handling facility and the two most recent oil train transport lines directly to the Tesoro’s refinery and Marisco’s. The tanker rail facility’s main source for crude oil is Plains All American. These are the four sources of the petroleum product that was used to back up the damaged pipe.

The amount of petroleum flowing through these system is staggering. Just as an oilfield town like Alpine, Wyoming (located out in the Rocky Mountains), doesn’t keep the oil on the surface, California’s refineries don’t either. They discharge the product in any of several tank terminals built on the water and in refineries that sit right on top of these tank terminals.

The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) does not include water transportation in its “well-maintained” facilities. So, yes, the oil spilled from this ruptured pipe could be transported into the Bay. Still, a small amount (2,500 gallons) of it seeped into the bay. The owners of the terminal now plan to alert the Coast Guard to new regulations that will force them to alert the Coast Guard when they are collecting petroleum products and notifying them when they are treating them. It would seem to be preferable to deal with the first problem before waiting for all 4 areas to report all the waterway grades, but who knows!

Meanwhile, one citizen’s research into the records at PHMSA reveals that both the existing Alameda Bay pipeline and another similar pipeline near the Richmond Port and California Marine Gateway (CMG) are old. They are each over thirty years old. This spill was the third reported pipe rupture at the refinery in over two years.

According to testimony in 2007 at a “draft regulatory program public hearing”:

“Sierra Club estimates that over 20 pipeline breaks in the Alameda Bay have occurred since 2002.”

And according to inspection reports submitted to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control by CHP (California Pipeline Safety Department):

“On the Richmond Port site, 20 (17 of them rated CROSEST Level 3) high-risk connector plates were removed in December 2002 and replaced with additional plates rated CROSEST LC. No such change was implemented for the Alameda Creek connection plate.”

I checked with the Southern Pacific Pipeline Company, the individual that operated the offending pipeline that leaked in Alameda, and was told that the company did undergo a top-to-bottom safety inspection in 2013 and that all leading c-ties and couplings were renewed. After this investigation found safety deficiencies, the company reportedly installed a backup valve or safety backup and even passed a performance inspection. Perhaps, in light of this incident, such attention to safety can be expanded or re-engineered.

I also read that the Tesoro Corporation trains and barges directly to the Tesoro Energy terminal and Tesoro Energy California’s terminal. These materials potentially spill very quickly if a combination of a catastrophic pipeline rupture and a towing boom caught in a bridge or overpass can occur. Is it likely? I don’t know. But the forecast does predict that we’ll be dealing with surface spills in and from our waterways for at least a little longer than we might like.

Click for Scary Photos of the San Francisco Oil Spill

If you’d like to share your stories, thoughts, pictures, stories, and solutions to solve California’s surface oil spill problems, you can view California oil spill reports at the United States Coast Guard here.

Marek Steinberg, M.B.A. is president of Air Methods and a former marine pilot. Contact him [email protected]

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