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 first in a
series of articles by
Camini Marajh, head, Express Investigative Desk:
FOR over a decade, State oil and gas giant Petrotrin ignored multiple leaks in its fuel transmission pipelines, safety warnings and its own recommendations to repair and replace aged and severely corroded infrastructure, including sea line No. 10, which ruptured last December 17 sending an estimated 7,453 barrels of fuel oil into the Gulf of Paria and coastal communities along the south western peninsula.
In its push for increased production and bigger profit margins, Petrotrin rolled the dice in a high-stakes gamble which saw warnings go unheeded, essential maintenance pushed back and corners cut as it outsourced more of its work to private contractors with little or - in the case of No. 10 sea line - no attention paid to safety standards and industry best practices, Express investigations have found.
From all accounts, including its own inspection records, audit reports, interviews with current and former officials, and other internal company data, Petrotrin knew about the potential and existing hazards identified with the continued use of poorly maintained and aged transmission pipelines.
The State’s biggest money spinner (liable for an annual $5 billion in petroleum taxes) had full knowledge that some of its marine assets did not meet strict industry “fitness for service” standards, yet continued, some say recklessly and dangerously, to push the safety envelope by using corroded, high-risk and leaky pipelines to move hazardous product.
The evidence on record shows that the December 17 oil spill disaster could have been averted had the company paid attention to the long laundry list of inspection recommendations made by its own safety experts, including the phased change-out of the 1,875 kilometre-long No.10 sea line.
Successive management top brass and boards of directors in the State oil and gas company failed to act on any of the several inspection reports related to No. 10 sea line, including a 1996 report which recommended a phased change-out of the severely corroded 40-plus-year-old sea line.
The failed line was issued an E3E ranking in an October 2010 diagnostic by then-head of Petrotrin’s Inspection Engineering department, Gamini Hapuarachchi, in a bid to overhaul key parts of the company’s mechanical integrity management plan.
The E3E classification is deemed “high risk” on the company’s integrity evaluation Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM), which means it is almost certain to leak. It is also the third highest possible risk contemplated in the Petrotrin RAM and carries a bucket list of potential hazards in the event of a spill, including negative publicity and damage to the company’s image, health and environmental issues and a $5 million hit in the pocket.
Petrotrin’s own records show that the company pushed back two crucial inspections in the years leading up to the rupture of the 16-inch, carbon-steel, above-water No. 10 sea line which the Hapuarachchi inspection report found had severe external corrosion.
The line was scheduled to undergo visual inspection (VI) and ultrasonic thickness (UT-STD) tests in 2010 and a line inspection in 2011, according to Inspection Report 016-2010, the Hapuarachchi blueprint for keeping the refinery safe.
Documents obtained by this newspaper reveal that the company, which posted a $2.5 billion profit in 2011, continued to play cheap with critical equipment maintenance schedules and spend big on experimental projects and plant upgrades. It shaded the truth and used selective data to present a skewed picture of efficiency and aggressive maintenance management.
Environmental disaster on
Company bosses read from the same script as they sought to deflect responsibility for what has been described as the worst environmental disaster in this country’s history. It denied union accusations that it failed to implement high priority schedule of works and countered that it adhered to industry best practice, namely the American Petroleum Institute (API) 570 standard.
But did they? In statements made to the media and full-page advertisements, the company held that it “completed several inspections” on No.10 sea line “since 2006 and as recently as 2011.” But its own internal investigation report into the December 17 incident shows that to be untrue The Petrotrin report, which reviewed historical company inspection data, found only three reports related to No.10, specifically:
• Inspection Advice Report No.0515 of 1996 (recommendation for phased change-out of sea line still to be implemented)
• Inspection Advice Ticket NTA 103/2006 (an advice ticket is not considered a complete inspection report and does not reflect work undertaken, if done at all)
• Inspection report 016-2010 (the Hapuarachchi report which examined all 40 sea lines at the Point-a-Pierre refinery, including No.10. The inspection recommendations contained in this report were not adhered to).
The accident report failed to address the two scheduled inspections recommended for No. 10 in the 2010 report and made only a vague reference to the planned roll out of new two year inspection intervals recommended for identified “high risk” lines. No. 10 was among five high risk lines flagged by Hapuarachchi for urgent attention within a prescribed two-year period.
The internal probe, which Petrotrin has kept under wraps since late January, said this about the Hapuarachchi plan to
improve plant safety: “Several sea lines should be inspected as per a given schedule, including No.10 sea line to be done by 2011.” It said further that most of the sea lines, including No.10 “should be replaced on a phased basis”.
The report by the four-member Petrotrin team, headed by process engineer Mervyn Cummings, made passing mention of Petrotrin’s failure to implement its own risk assessment process. It said this: “Based on the data gathered, gaps were identified in the maintenance effort, asset integrity monitoring and the understanding and implementation of procedures.
“It was concluded that the failure of pipe supports for No.10 sea line expansion joint at Pile Bent 122 on the main viaduct led eventually to failure during the loading of the barge Marabella. Elements of planned preventative maintenance were in place but the implementation questionable.”
Failure to Meet API Standards
The report fails to identify the “gaps” in question or why there were “gaps” at all given the 016-2010 Hapuarachchi blueprint which was copied to a roster of 17 managers including vice president, Refining and Marketing (R&M) Mado Bachan and senior manager of Refining Luke McSween. An electronic copy of the report and its attachments were also posted on the company’s web.
The Cummings report, however, admits in a roundabout way to Petrotrin’s failure to comply with API industry standards. It puts it this way: “It was also concluded that the engineering support required to guide the process was either not engaged or not available.” The report does not examine why this was so.
Publicly, Petrotrin went on the offensive with tales of sabotage conspiracy and employee negligence. The company was quick to rule out safety lapses or willful neglect of pipeline assets it knew were on borrowed time as it defended itself against repeated claims of negligence and calls for an independent investigation by the bargaining union representing workers, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), fisherfolk, coastal communities harmed by the oil spill and other stakeholders.
It attempted to counter-punch union boss Ancel Roget’s outspoken criticism of Petrotrin and his charge of negligence with a defence that the company operated a “robust asset integrity” management system and complied with API standards.
But the company’s own documents show this to be untrue. Petrotrin’s top brass Lindsay Gillette and Khalid Hassanali asserted that, contrary to Roget’s claims, sections of No.10 sea line had been changed out in the last 24 months in compliance with industry standards.
Public statements, advertisements and e-mail responses to questions from this reporter all maintained that any statement suggesting that “there has been no inspection and/or maintenance performed on this line is incorrect.” Official company statements identified the API 570 piping inspection code as the standard Petrotrin followed.
It went further, pointing out that the API inspection code recommends maximum inspection intervals for the various classes of piping systems, namely Class 1: 5 years and Class 3: 10 years. According to Petrotrin, No.10 sea line, falls within the Class 3 range. The company noted that: “In keeping with the recommendations of the inspection programme, critical parts of sea line No.10 have been changed and work is ongoing.”
This defence is completely at odds with the Hapuarachchi ten-year inspection plan which used factors like age, historical data and corrosive condition of the line. Also, the API 570 classification for inspections is based on the premise of new and/or rehabilitated pipeline, not severely corroded and leaky 40- plus-year-old sea line.
Hassanali, Petrotrin’s president, in an e-mailed response to the Express on what sections of No.10 have been changed out since the initial 1996 inspection report, said: “Repairs have been carried out over the years in accordance with recommendations and most recently in 2013 approximately 200 ft of pipeline was changed.” He did not respond to questions on whether the repairs were certified or whether it sufficiently addressed the severe corrosion issues identified in the 016-2010 report.
Work on No.10 not Certified
It also appears that he did not share this information with the team he appointed to probe the failed No.10 sea line. The Cummings report talks of a recent change-out (prior to the December failure) of 120 ft of pipeline on No.10 and apparent quality control lapses in supervising this pipe replacement job which was done in close proximity to the ruptured expansion joint.
He made bare-bones mention of work done without inspection and/or mechanical and civil engineering input. According to him: “This was evident based on the fact that there was no engineering input into the replacement of circa 120 ft of No.10 sea line that took place within the last few months. The line was replaced because of a leak, which was at first clamped, then the opportunity taken to install replacement pipe between two existing flanges.”
Cummings noted that: “This replacement began at Pile Bent (PB) 124, which was close to PB 122, where the expansion joint failed.” Pointing to the detailed planned preventive maintenance (PPM) blueprint developed by Hapuarachchi, he said: “It appears that there is a lack of coherency and effectiveness regarding the implementation of the PPM program.” He pointed to the high incidence of leaking glands in the fuel oil pumps in No.1 Pump house as “further evidence that the PPM is not functioning as designed”.
Given his findings, it may not surprise him that it was actually 240 ft of pipe that was changed out on No.10. Also, there is no inspection documentation or mechanical completion certificates or any quality assurance/control documentation or individual inspection report that No.10 sea line was partially renewed before it dramatically gave way on that fateful December day - clear violations of the API 570 code.
—To be continued tomorrow.