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 Sunday Express takes a close look at the chain of events that led to this country’s worst environmental disaster.
This is the seventh in a series of articles by Camini Marajh, Head, Express Investigative Desk.
For long years, State oil and gas giant Petrotrin operated as a law unto itself. It broke the rules, overlooked warnings, failed to comply with issued safety notifications and threw billions of dollars at plant upgrades and experimental gas-to-liquids technology while ignoring critical maintenance on aged infrastructure.
Parties on both sides of the political aisle have kicked the proverbial oil can down the road, stacking the board with cronies and turning a blind eye to potential environmental hazards. From all accounts, competence in petroleum refining was not a requirement to enter the Petrotrin boardroom. That deficiency is today costing the company a lot of money.
Continuing Sunday Express investigations into how the company conducts business reveal the board is either ill-equipped or does not understand the associated risks of keeping aged and under-maintained assets in continued service in an already dangerous environment.
The growing pile of evidence shows Petrotrin’s management has consistently pushed back on critical maintenance in its bid to hold down costs, operating the company on a dangerous system of breakdown maintenance. Insiders and internal company documents indicate Petrotrin recklessly allows equipment to operate until it breaks, and even then doesn’t have the required spares in hand to do the necessary repairs.
The company has vehemently denied this, countering “regular and scheduled maintenance is a key aspect of our operation”.
President Khalid Hassanali, in an e-mailed response to this reporter, maintained: “The company has a preventive maintenance schedule that it has followed and continues to follow. At least two of the incidents—the leaking line at Pointe-a-Pierre and the spill at La Brea (one and the same, one impacted the other)—have been attributed to worker negligence and the offending parties have been dismissed, others are under investigation.”
However, as reported previously in this series, the company relies on band-aid fixes, like clamps on leaks in its marine infrastructure. Petrotrin’s own documents reveal a lot of these temporary fixes have become permanent solutions. Classic case in point, a temporary pipe spool, installed on its most famous sea line in 2002 as a short-term fix to a faulty expansion joint was still doing duty on the line in January 2014.
Mervyn Cummings, a process engineer, explained the potential design danger of this particular type of fix in his probe report into No 10’s failure. According to him, expansion joints are needed to absorb thermal movement on high-pressure pipelines which carry hazardous product, while a spool is a fixed piece of piping that could exceed the design capability of the line. At the time of writing his report in January 2014, Petrotrin was still without critical spares and was operating with a lot of leaking-expansion joints, contrary to the company’s public claims.
Cummings pointed to other danger flags in how the company operates, including the lack of “interaction” between the technical room and the boardroom and the company’s failure to fix essential maintenance issues that could have prevented the December 17 spill.
The No 10 pipeline failure is still under investigation by a Government-appointed task force, but what has emerged so far shows repeated company and union warnings went unheeded and preventive maintenance was pushed to the sidelines.
More damaging details about the company’s consistent failure to take care of safety hazards came from the State Regulator and Minister of Energy and Energy Affairs (MEEA), Kevin Ramnarine, who has done little or nothing to bring Petrotrin to account. If anything, Ramnarine has been reading from the same Petrotrin script since No 10 ruptured its line, pointing to unknown saboteurs and mystery leaks when he knew on the morning of December 17 that the company had over 7,000 barrels of unaccounted-for oil in the Gulf of Paria.
On April 2, the line minister conceded in the Senate that Petrotrin had run afoul of the MEEA HSE (health, safety and environment) standards and was issued with a long list of HSE violations by the ministry’s inspection unit. Responding to several questions from Independent Senator David Small, Ramnarine acknowledged Petrotrin had failed to comply with the industry regulator’s HSE standards.
He talked of a roll-over of 966 deficiencies from 2010 into 2011, and of 2,085 new deficiencies being recorded in 2011. Of this number, less than half of the recorded 2011 deficiencies, or 1,193, were resolved. A whopping 1,858 HSE violations or deficiencies, as the minister preferred to call it, were rolled over from 2011 into 2012, with new notifications numbering 1,326. He said 1,435 were fixed by the State-run company.
According to Minister Ramnarine, Petrotrin continued to maintain a poor safety record last year, racking up 1,923 new deficiencies and carrying over 1,785 notices from 2012. He was unable to tell the Senate what numbers, if any, had been resolved for 2013, but declared a National Facilities Audit would take care of Petrotrin’s outstanding HSE deficiencies.
He neglected to tell the Senate what, if anything, he has done to bring the rogue State company to account or why Petrotrin has been allowed to operate recklessly and dangerously for so long. He also omitted to mention he has the authority to shut down the company if he was of the view the company was not operating safely.
He held up the planned National Facilities Audit as a policing tool to bring the errant company to book and to proffer the tired defence that the integrated oil and gas company had aged assets. Whether the company should have a more rigorous maintenance plan to take care of its aged infrastructure, he did not say. Ramnarine refused to speak to the Sunday Express and submitted his Hansard record from the House of Representatives sitting on January 10 as response to a list of questions sent for his attention.
His consultant, corporate social responsibility and strategic communications, Prior Beharry, said he was “instructed to indicate that the minister never defended Petrotrin but treated the (oil spill) problem like a national problem and caused international resources to be mobilised”, a full six days later.
Beharry said: “I am further instructed to indicate that the minister never said there was sabotage. He said there was compelling evidence to support this thesis in the case of Rancho Quemado and Riser Platform 5.”
In the immediate aftermath of the December spill, the minister repeatedly alluded to sabotage by unknown people. On December 23, he said the spill at Rancho Quemado had already been classified as an act of sabotage and a report was made to the police.
“The valves that were opened could only have been opened using a specialised type of wrench,” he said then.
The submitted Hansard record does not at all address the questions submitted for his attention on March 20. The following are some of the questions Minister Ramnarine has refused to answer:
• The evidence on record shows that the board of directors and management of Petrotrin knew about the company’s asset-integrity problems relating to aged infrastructure. Were you aware of these specific infrastructure problems? And, as the industry regulator, what have you done to ensure that the State oil and gas company [complies] with industry standards and [takes] care of urgent safety issues?
• Are you satisfied that the State oil and gas company is doing all it can to operate safely and adhere to international safety codes and best practice?
• You went to Petrotrin’s defence almost from the beginning. Did you have all of the facts when you defended the company and declared that unknown saboteurs were involved? Do you still hold that view and, if yes, where is the proof?
• Please comment on wide-held reports that there are serious competency issues at every level of the state company, including the board of directors and the executive management. A review of the board of directors suggests that not a single person there has any experience and or competence in petroleum refining. In your view, does this board have the requisite competence to manage the affairs of the State oil and gas company?
• Why did Petrotrin claim ignorance about the source of the initial December 17 oil spill when it knew full well that it was the responsible party?
• Has your probe committee reported back to you? If yes, what are its findings? If no, when do you expect to have a report in hand and do you plan to share those findings with the public?
• Why have you and the People’s Partnership administration refused repeated calls for a full and independent investigation into the entire incident?
• Do you think anything less will suffice given all of the conflicting information put out by all of the interested parties? Also, do you think the public has a right to the facts of the matter?
• Please explain the company and the State’s failure to shore off protected coastline in the south-western peninsula given the fact that Petrotrin had early information about the volume and location of the oil spill.
...Catalogue of events
1996: Full inspection of No 10 sea line. Leaks found on sections of the 1,875 km-long line caused by deterioration of areas below the minimum wall thickness. Report recommends phased change-out of the severely corroded line.
January 1997: Line taken out of service for repairs to pipe segment from No 1 Pump House to No 1 Berth.
August 1997: Line returned to service.
2002: All expansion joints between No 1 Berth to Pile Bent 19 serviced.
December 2002: 80 feet section of line renewed between Pile Bent 23 to Pile Bent 26.
2003: All expansion joints between Pile Bent 19 to 205 serviced.
2004: Multiple leaks. All expansion joints between Pile Bent 19 to 205 again serviced.
2005: Adjustments made to all leaking expansion joints from Pile Bent 19 to 205.
October 2010: Petrotrin’s head, Inspection Engineering Division, Gamini Hapuarachchi, maps out a ten-year pipeline integrity plan to overhaul the company’s aged and weakened marine infrastructure in bid to keep the refinery safe.
Also in October 2010: No 10 is issued an E3E ranking by Hapuarachchi. The identified E3E rating is the third highest risk on the company’s Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM), which means it is almost certain to rupture. The primary degradation driver is identified as external corrosion. The line is put on a VI (visual inspection) and UT-STD (ultrasonic thickness measurement) schedule for tests. Petrotrin fails to do scheduled maintenance.
The Hapuarachchi blueprint makes bare-bones mention of two inspections reportedly done in 2006 and 2009. But this is not reflected on the company’s Maintenance Data Log for No 10 sea-line. The Cummings Report into the December spill found only three inspection reports related to No 10 sea line, namely: the 1996 report which recommended a complete change out of the line on a phased basis, a 2006 Inspection Advice Ticket (IAT) and the 2010 Hapuarachchi Report.
2011: Petrotrin skips another crucial inspection on the Hapuarachchi timetable to take care of outstanding mechanical integrity issues. The 40-year-old line is kept dangerously in service and continues to move hazardous product to market. The company’s own safety guidelines stipulate a mandatory two-year inspection interval for high risk lines. The authority to release valuable product-loading lines for inspection resides with vice-president Refining and Marketing, Mado Bachan.
December 27, 2012: A clamp is placed on the line at Pile Bent 124 to stop another leak.
Sometime during the last six months of 2013: Unsupervised change-out of sections of pipeline near to where the line broke. Company officials are apparently not sure about how much pipe was changed.
The president, in an e-mailed response to this reporter, put the figure at about 200 feet. The Cummings Report said it was 120 feet. Petrotrin insiders told the Sunday Express it was 240 feet.
Questions remain about who approved the pipe change for No 10? Why was there no engineering inspection input? Why no mechanical completion certificate or quality control document as stipulated in the API 570 code?
Who gave the green light to put the line back in business without the required “fitness for service” certificate?
Why was the contractor allowed to put back the old, corroded hanger supports that were a fraction away from disintegration? Why did Petrotrin’s official account of what happened repeatedly assert “the cause was identified to be a failed chain support not apparently defective during previous routine inspections”, when the company’s own internal documents very clearly state that “75 per cent of the chain-type supports and associated bearing channel supports (on No 10) were severely corroded”?
The chain support that broke (part of the corroded 75 per cent) caused the line to collapse under its own weight, completely shearing off the stationary flange on the cast iron expansion joint, rendering the line open-ended. Inspection reports reveal these hangers and supports were recommended for change out in 2007.
Internal company documents also found the channel beam supports, bearing plates and pile caps at the point of rupture—Pile Bent 122—were severely corroded and perforated. There is also no explanation for why there is no record of the 2013 pipe work on No 10’s Maintenance Data Log?
December 17, 2013:
2.10 a.m. - Start of bunkering from storage Tank 68 to barge Marabella at the Pointe-a-Pierre harbour.
2.45 a.m. - Barge engineer reports slow flow rate. Information reported up the chain.
3 a.m. - Personnel in both the pump house and on the barge report a loading problem. Tank dips are taken at both ends and checked against readings from automatic gauges.
Checks are also conducted to ensure that No 10 is the loading sea-line in use and that all associated pipe systems are closed. Checks repeated in the ensuing 30 minutes.
Tank dips reveal a volume of about 3,000 barrels of fuel oil already discharged. A worker switches the pump, but no discernible change is observed. He switches back to what he describes as the more efficient pump.
4 a.m. - Workers continue pumping even as they try to troubleshoot the problem. Jetty operators asked to check the vicinity of Berth 25 and 8 South for oil.
4.40 a.m. - Call made to suspend loading operations.
5.20 a.m. - Actual time the pump stopped. Company logs show 7,453 barrels of heavy bunker fuel oil unaccounted for.
6 a.m. - Oil sightings reported by Petrotrin security and a nearby fisherman.
7 a.m. - Emergency response alarm raised for oil spill in coastal areas, according to the Cummings Report.
7.05 a.m. - No 10 sea line is isolated. Ten minutes later, all isolation valves are closed off.
8.20 a.m. - Sorbent booms deployed around spill site.
9.15 a.m. - Shore booms added as an extra spill-containment measure.
10.05 a.m. - Oil sheen observed at No 2 South Berth flowing in a south westerly direction.
10 a.m. to 11 a.m. - Tugs used to break up spill, as opposed to a recovery exercise. Company gives the green light to use spill dispersant Corexit 9500A.
11.20 a.m. - Aerial fly-by over Claxton Bay, San Fernando, Mosquito Creek, La Brea and Point Lisas.
• No sheen between the areas of Claxton Bay to La Brea.
• In the vicinity of La Brea, there was a long, narrow strip of oil about 110 feet in width by 1,200 feet in length.
“It appeared that this patch of oil was trapped within the water column hence under the surface of the water.”
This oil did not yet make it to shore.
• In the vicinity of No 1 Berth, the spill was observed to be 3,960 feet in width and 1,640 feet in length (thousands of barrels of the missing fuel oil).
• Oil sheen and black oil were observed from the Lube oil Jetty heading toward No 10 sea line on the Main Viaduct at the refinery.
11.25 a.m. - Two Petrotrin boats, equipped with hydraulic pump and storage tanks arrive at spill site—Pile Bent 122—to begin clean-up operations.
3 p.m. - Broken expansion joint removed.
4 p.m. - Blind flange installed on the western end of No 10.
5.30 p.m. - Leak at Pile Bent 122 stopped.
5.35 p.m. - 60 barrels of oil recovered.
6.15 p.m. - Skimming operations suspended. The rest of the unrecovered oil begins to make its way to the La Brea shoreline.
5.45 a.m. - Survey done in the vicinity of Pile Bent 123. Observations noted:
• Oil contained within the booms.
• The inner part of the harbour had a light sheen and small dispersed patches of black oil.
• The anchorage area had a light sheen. No large areas of oil.
• In the vicinity of No 2 South Berth, there was a heavy sheen and thin film of oil on the surface. There were also dispersed patches of black oil on the water surface.
The Cummings Report found the No 10 line failed because of an initial mechanical failure of the support at the expansion joint at Pile Bent 122, leading to loss of support and eventual failure of the line. He said it was an accident that could have been averted had Petrotrin followed the Hapuarachchi Plan.
He also found some culpability with the workers for continuing to pump when they didn’t know where the oil was going. The time log revealed all was not well at 3 a.m. Potential lost revenue from not being able to ship product was said to be a factor in the delayed decision to stop bunkering and continue troubleshooting.
Cummings noted an expected slow loading rate at the start of bunkering because of the high viscosity of the cold product. He said the problem could “only be reasonably addressed as an issue” 30 to 40 minutes into loading.
He also noted the company’s remote monitoring system for its storage tanks was obsolete and workers had to manually check the relevant pipe work and tankage to ensure the pipework was not incorrectly lined up or inadvertently filling another tank which has happened before.
The report said: “The team has not found a specific work instruction on how to determine the exact location or source of a suspected oil spill.”
It also pointed out the berths are usually not all manned at a given time. The company fired six workers for failing to make the stop call sooner.