breach: Leaking flange on sea line No 15.

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The Petrotrin lie

 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 fifth in a series of articles by Camini Marajh, Head, Express Investigative Desk


State oil and gas giant Petrotrin told outright lies on several key points about the December oil spills, including the so-called sabotage claim related to Riser Platform 5 (RP), Sunday Express investigations have found. And, the Kamla Persad-Bissessar Government played a part in facilitating the pattern of deceit instead of holding the State energy company to account.

Internal investigation reports and other company documents obtained by this newspaper indicate the Persad-Bissessar administration and Petrotrin misled the Parliament and the public about the events of the December oil spills.

Petrotrin lied to the country when it reported a spill incident involving RP No 5 on the afternoon on December 17. The incident in fact happened on December 18, according to Petrotrin’s own documents. The company took four days after No 10 sea line ruptured to acknowledge there was an incident at its Pointe-a-Pierre refinery and even then failed to provide critical information that it had close to 7,500 barrels of unaccounted-for fuel oil somewhere in the Gulf of Paria.

The company which repeatedly asserted that unknown saboteurs were responsible for the series of so-called mystery leaks hid the facts relating to the No 10 incident for long critical days and told an outright lie about the timeline relating to the RP No 5 spill.

An internal company document said that the RP No 5 incident took place on December 18 and not on the 17th as the company made out. The report also contradicts claims by the board and management of Petrotrin and Government officials that foul play was involved. Sabotage was not even a distant spectre on the Soldado horizon, according to the company’s own investigation report into the incident.

The report by company man Dexter Hector put the blame squarely on a blown rubber gasket which, according to him, should never have been put on the line to start with. As previously reported in this series, Petrotrin has ignored its own safety warnings and used band-aid fixes to keep the refinery operating in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

The Hector Report found the rubber gasket which blew on December 18 was badly flawed and did not meet the API industry standard for offshore platform piping systems. There was no Management of Change (MOC) document related to the change-out of the rubber gasket in 2005 and no “fitness for service” certificate that the rubber gasket was a safe substitute for the required metal part.

For reasons not clear, Petrotrin lied and shaded the truth about much of the facts related to the December spills, including spill incidents that never happened. 

It reported a total of three oil leaks involving its joint venture partner, Trinity Exploration and Production. A spokesman for the company told the Sunday Express of a single oil leak at an onshore facility at Rancho Quemado which was contained in the space of a day with 80 of the 90 barrels of crude recovered.

He confirmed the company did report its suspicion that the line had been tampered with but admitted there was no evidence to prove this and “nothing more has come to light”. The company spokesman, who declined to speak on the record, made clear Trinity had no oil leaks at sea. He said there was an incident on December 24 in Brighton but this related to “a tiny but not measurable gas leak”.

In throwing up its sabotage conspiracy, the Petrotrin board and executive made heavy weather of an unprecedented 11 leaks in ten days. In fact there were seven. A review of the company’s own data and other information show that the company counted coastal sites impacted by the oil spills as actual spills.

The seven identified spills are Petrotrin’s four, Trinity’s two (counting the tiny gas leak) and Neal and Massy Energy Resources Ltd one.

1. The No 10 sea line at the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery on December 17 responsible for 7,453 barrels of fuel oil being spilled into the sea.

2. RP No 5 in the main Soldado Field on December 18 (crude).

3. Platform 17 in the company’s East Soldado Field on December 19 (crude).

4. No 15 sea line at the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery on December 26 (fuel oil).

5. Lease operator Trinity’s Rancho Quemado incident on December 21 (single suspected case of sabotage for which no evidence has been presented) crude. 

6. The miniscule natural gas leak in the Brighton Field on December 24.

7. And Neal and Massy’s loss of three barrels of crude in a forested area in Moruga on December 24. Investigations suggest an agricultural vehicle called a timberjack went over a line which sprang a leak. Two-and-a-half barrels were recovered.

And, as the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) found, in both preliminary and final test results, all of the weathered oil samples collected except from a barge at the LABIDCO Industrial Estate, tested positive for “bunker C type fuel oil” which carried the same characteristics as the samples taken from the No 10 refinery spill on December 17.

In the immediate aftermath of the No 10 spill, Petrotrin added to the confusion by suggesting the thick black sludge that was washing up on the coastline along the south- western peninsula was crude. But as this Sunday Express investigation has found, the timeline of Petrotrin’s deceit is important. 

Company logs and records show the company knew by 6 a.m. on December 17 that No 10 sea line had ruptured and spilled over 7,000 barrels of fuel oil into the sea.

It knew it had missed two crucial inspections on the physically weakened line, knew that No 10 had serious problems long before the accident, knew it had failed to heed its own safety warnings and knew the financial consequences of its negligent behaviour. 

Company photographs taken from a helicopter fly-by at 11.30 a.m. on December 18 showed an oil sighting at the Oropouche bank (north of La Brea), a full 24 hours before the RP No 5 blew a gasket leak and spewed crude into the sea—the second leak on the December record.

Petrotrin went further, declaring that preliminary laboratory tests conducted on samples collected at the different points of impact made crude the likely culprit. And to make sure nobody connected the crude spilled in the Soldado field to what was blackening the La Brea shoreline, the company asserted aerial and marine sightings found no connection among the four company spills caused by its own negligence.

It fails to explain how an oil and gas giant, in the business for 100 years, and conducting a multitude of tests on petrochemical product on a daily basis, could get it so wrong, how it managed to mistake a refined fuel for crude. It also fails to address the $64-million question of its thinking on where exactly its fuel oil went to.  


Continues on Wednesday

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