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Unchecked for 17 years
The failed pipeline behind the first massive marine-based oil leak that has affected the south-western coastline may not have undergone major inspections for almost two decades, a confidential report commissioned by state-owned Petrotrin has shown. The preliminary investigation and report, which was submitted to the seniors at Petrotrin on December 24, also showed evidence of poor maintenance, which the report said resulted in more than 7,000 barrels of oil being leaked into the Gulf of Paria on December 17.
The report was ordered after the December 17 oil spill which started off Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre base, but then spread rapidly to other areas of the south-western peninsula. Details of the report surfaced yesterday, a day after a high-powered Petrotrin team, speaking to the media after meeting with the National Security Council, said two of the 11 leaks found since the first occurred at Pointe-a-Pierre were acts of sabotage and had since been reported to the police.
The investigation into the first leak found that a failed connection between an oil tanker and a barge at Point-a-Pierre leaked 7,453 barrels of bunker fuel into the sea, which subsequently triggered the massive oil spills along the south-western coastline that are still affecting residents in several communities, with La Brea being the worst hit.
The seven-page report, titled “Preliminary Investigative Report into Incident,” was done internally by and for Petrotrin and was submitted to the company seniors on Christmas Eve. The investigative team was headed by Mervyn Cummings and included four other employees. It listed nine findings and eight conclusions and detailed the events that led to the initial marine spillage.
The investigation, however, was restricted to just the Pointe-a-Pierre leak. In fact, the investigative team noted in the report that while they were probing that leak, several other leaks at Petrotrin marine installations had been reported, but that these were beyond their remit.
On Thursday, after a meeting with the National Security Council, Petrotrin officials, including president Khalid Hassanali and chairman Lindsey Gillette, said “specialist tools” were used to start two of the leaks and claimed acts of sabotage led to two of the 11 spills. The Petrotrin team had told the council it was found that two three-inch bull plugs were removed from the Rancho Quemado well and a 16-inch flange from Riser Platform Five at Point Fortin was deliberately tampered with.
“You need a very large wrench to remove the plugs. At Riser, there are pictures of the oil spurting out. You have to loosen the nut for the oil to spill,” Gillette said. The preliminary report and the findings for the marine-based spill at Pointe-a-Pierre did not cite acts of sabotage, but instead raised lack of maintenance and pipeline failure as leading to circumstances where the line became compromised.
The investigation also found “sheared,” “broken” and “unconnected” expansion joints and beams, which failed during the tranmission of fuel from one oil tank to the Marabella barge, were the problem which sparked off the oil leak. It noted, however, that the line in question “has not undergone a major inspection in over 17 years.” The investigation also found that aerial surveys indicated that at one point, the slick created from the oil spill was more than 4,500 feet long.
“The No 10 S/L 16-inch expansion joint was found to be completely sheared (stationary end) from the flange connecting the joint to the upstream piping,” the report said. One energy expert said yesterday that a flange is the connector between two pieces of pipe and if that failed it would mean a break in the transmission. “The sender would not know there was a problem, the receiver would when there would be no output on his end,” the expert said.
The report did say complaints were made about a low loading rate, which was why the December 17 loading was suspended. Questions on the report were posed to both Petrotrin officials and Minister of Energy Kevin Ramnarine via e-mail yesterday.
The T&T Guardian last evening received a response to those questions from lawyers representing the state company which described the report as “privileged,” “confidential” and “incorrect. In the attorneys’ letter to the T&T Guardian, the company also said that the 7,453 barrels of leaked oil cost US$95 per barrel, which translates into roughly TT$4.5 million.
Petrotrin’s attorneys, on behalf of the company, stated that the lines had been checked “recently,” but did not say whether it was before or after the leaks developed last month. “Our records reveal that more recent inspections have taken place on the specific Sea Line (No. 10), and also, the entire piping system has been subsequently inspected in its entirety,” it said.
It noted too that “at Petrotrin, there is a planned preventative maintenance programme that requires regular inspections of our lines and equipment. At this time, Petrotrin is unable to conclude that poor maintenance led to any incident. Investigations are ongoing.”
The attorneys added that inspections could be ‘major’ or ‘minor’ based on the scope and methodologies utilised. Inspection includes: ultrasound tests for line thickness, visual checks of the general condition of the line; visual inspection of the supports; corrosion on the line; leaks on the line, valves, flanges and expansion joints. Petrotrin’s attorneys also said that the document was a “preliminary investigative report” and was used to “gather evidence for use in proceedings and is therefore privileged.”
The state-company also stated that “Petrotrin is unable to conclude that poor maintenance led to any incident.” Petrotrin’s attorneys said: An immediate integrity check of the entire asset is being conducted.”