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New oil pipeline controversy! The pipeline which ruptured in Santa Barbara County is back in the news


The owners say they need to add 16 automatic safety shutoff valves to meet new state requirements, but opponents fear it will lead to reactivating the line.

It’s a controversial subject any way you look at it

It’s been nearly eight years since a crude oil pipeline ruptured on Santa Barbara County’s Gaviota coastline. More than 140,000 gallons of oil ended up on the coast, and in the ocean. The pipeline has been shut down ever since. But now, a proposal meant to improve the pipeline’s safety has created new attention, and controversy.

The owner, Plains All-American Pipeline, filed an application to replace it. At the same time, even though it’s not operational, it’s still required by a new state law to maintain the existing line as if it was working. So, the company filed an application to add 16 automatic safety valves which would shut it down if there was a spill. It had manual valves at the time of the accident, and operators were slow to use them.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office approved the plan. Santa Barbara County also has to approve the plan.

Here’s where the controversy comes into the picture. Some people fear it could lead to the pipeline being patched up, instead of replaced, especially with new owners in the picture.

There’s another twist. An affiliate of Exxon Mobil reached a deal to buy the pipeline. The reason the company is interested, despite the pipeline’s history, is that it has three oil platforms off Santa Barbara County’s coastline which will likely remain idle until there is an operating pipeline.

The Santa Barbara County Planning Department approved the application.

A coalition of opponents appealed that decision. The dispute ended up in the lap of the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, which reviewed the case Wednesday.

Attorney Barry Cappello represents some of the opponents.

"If they're using it as a guise for this pipeline that's in the ground already which is a Swiss's a bait and switch," said Cappello. "Are they doing a new pipeline? That requires a full EIR...they may not want to do it"

Project opponent Bill Woodbridge came with a photo of the pipeline. "Look at the condition of that pipe. Putting lipstick on a pig doesn't change it. It's still a pig."

But, those representing Pacific Pipeline Company say adding the 16 safety valves is literally something that’s required by a new state law.

"Because of state regulation, we're now having to upgrade the lines that are already existing," said attorney Christian Marsh.

Steve Gregg is with the Pacific Pipeline Company. "As county staff and county counsel have determined, this is not a decision about reopening the line, or a decision on restart," said Gregg. "This is a decision on the installation of safety valves to comply with AB 864 (the new state law which requires safety improvements for pipelines.)"

Opponents want more environmental review.

The day long hearing ended with a big debate among the planning commissioners.

In the end, the commission didn’t make a decision. While some commissioners leaned towards denying the company’s valve permits, others wanted the staff to look at whether more environmental review would help. The commission is set to take it up again in late April.

Regardless of what it does, it’s likely whoever loses will appeal to Santa Barbara County Supervisors, who have the final say.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.