On a fateful December day when Christmas shopping occupied the minds of most people, a 16-inch diameter sea line broke at the State-owned refinery, sending a rush of black fuel oil into the Gulf of Paria and along the south-western coastline. The effect of that spill is still being felt today by fisherfolk and people in poor coastal communities. The Express takes a close look at the chain of events that led to this country’s worst environmental disaster in history.
This is the fourth in a series of articles by Camini Marajh, head, Express Investigative Desk.
Petrotrin’s continued failure to follow its own risk-assessment warnings after the disastrous events of last December 17 has led to several new oil and gas leaks for this year already, Express investigations have found.
The oil giant’s failure to follow the 2010 Hapuarachchi mechanical integrity blueprint for refinery safety and continued use of aged infrastructure with identified hazards saw new leaks opening up on a three-inch butane line (early January), No. 27 sea line (a vapour return line, also in January), a flange leak on No. 22 sea line (gas oil, also in January), leaking expansion joint on No. 25 sea line (gasoline, early February), corrosion holes on sea line No. 61 (fuel oil) on March 31 and corrosion hole on sea line No. 21 (motor gasoline) on April 2.
Company-issued Inspection Advice Tickets (IATs) for some of the problematic pipelines show some of the same vulnerabilities identified in the 2010 Mechanical Integrity Report for the refinery’s marine infrastructure and a December 27, 2013 IAT for the failed No. 10 sea line, specifically—failed maintenance, severe corrosion, delayed inspections and leaking expansion joints, flanges and valves, among other things. The leaks are said to be “negligible”.
As reported in Part I of this series, the State-owned oil and gas company overlooked multiple safety warnings, including a spate of negligible leaks on its pipelines and its own recommendations to replace severely corroded marine infrastructure, including its No. 10 sea line which failed dramatically on December 17.
Documents obtained by this newspaper reveal that Petrotrin’s maintenance scorecard has been less than exemplary. In the case of No. 27 sea line, identified as a medium-risk line by Gamini Hapuarachchi, Petrotrin’s former Inspection Engineering head, the company neglected to do a crucial inspection in 2011.
The IAT for No. 27 found an entire section of pipe resting on the ground without the requisite pipe support or protective safety wrapping. It noted that about “150-inches of the line is severely corroded and covered with debris” and a substantial number of flanges were “severely corroded” at the bottom. It found mechanical damage and sections that were so “severely deteriorated” it showed signs of “crevice corrosive”.
The company-issued IAT for No. 25 on February 7 revealed “severe external corrosion under loose and deteriorated (safety) wrapping” and several leaking expansion joints. And, as with No. 10 sea line, the primary degradation driver in all of the failed pipelines, including No. 15, No. 22, No. 25, No 27, and No. 61, was identified as “external corrosion”. No. 15, another high-risk fuel oil line, failed on December 26. A section of the 12-inch diameter line collapsed into the sea after a support hanger gave way. That spill was contained in the Pointe-a-Pierre Harbour.
In the case of No. 61, small line leaks developed into corrosion holes, according to persons with knowledge of the situation. This leak was also reported to have been contained in the harbour area. A corrosion hole was also identified as the problem with the April 2 leak on sea line No. 21. Pipe stress analysis and other integrity pipeline tests conducted by Hapuarachchi on failed sections of sea lines at the Petrotrin refinery found that: “if a failure should occur, it is assumed that the mode of failure of these lines being that of a corrosion hole.”
More pipeline integrity issues also forced the February 11 closure of the company’s Lube Oil Jetty, sources have disclosed. Critical lines which move hazardous hydrocarbon product were scheduled for urgent maintenance work after safety hazards were flagged. The company’s own investigative report into the events leading to the No.10 failure found that the accident happened because of Petrotrin’s own careless actions.
Process Engineer Mervyn Cummings, the company man appointed as lead investigator, found that the state oil and gas company has been operating for years without critical spare parts like expansion joints or any staff in its Defect Elimination Section of the Reliability Engineering Department. He noted with concern the Petrotrin practice of allowing temporary fixes to become permanent fixtures.
In a business culture where safety plays second fiddle to bottom line, Cummings found an absence of documented work plans or Management of Change (MOC) documents for change-outs of expansion joints and other repairs in violation of industry standards. He found what was supposed to be a temporary fix in 2002 on a sea line still in place 13 years later.
His review of MOC documents for port operations from 2008 to January this year turned up a pipe spool (temporary replacement for failed expansion joint) doing hard overtime on the job. He said Petrotrin’s Port Maintenance Superintendent, in office since May 2012, had previously requested the replacement of all the expansion joints because of the high incidence of leaks that “are increasingly difficult to stop.”
He found instances where glands were tightened so much that the underside of the joints became deformed. Cummings pointed to the safety hazards related to extended use of pipe spools which do not possess any thermal expansion capability. He said this can cause the pipeline to move and create strain on the stationary section. In effect, exceed the design capabilities of the line, he said.
As reported previously, the IAT on No. 10 listed several leaking expansion joints, valves and flanges. The ticket issued on No.15 also found leaking flanges and mechanical damage to the line. “Pile Bent 30: the back to back support was severely deformed and knife-edge thin,” according to the company-issued IAT.
He found that the Hapuarachchi integrity management plan was not working as the safety blueprint intended. “The failure of No.10 sea line could have been averted if the condition of these lines and the piping supports had been assessed/evaluated by the competent personnel basis the schedule proposed in the inspection report on the mechanical integrity of the sea lines produced by the Inspection Department in 2010 (016-2010) and corrective action taken as a result,”
Admitting to technical expertise “limitations” of the four-member team and the short time frame set for the report, Cummings urged Petrotrin to conduct further expert study on the matter and to review its design and maintenance practices.
He also urged that equipment identified as medium or high-risk should be taken out of service until it is declared safe and fit for service by the competent experts. The Hapuarachchi report identified six high risk lines and more than ten medium risk sea lines at the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery.
—To be continued on Sunday