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US pipeline accidents surge along with oil production boom

WASHINGTON — The oil pipeline leak that fouled a stretch of California coastline this week reflects a trend of large increases in both US oil production and the number of pipeline accidents.

Since 2009, the annual number of significant accidents on oil and petroleum pipelines has shot up by almost 60 percent, roughly matching the rise in US crude oil production, according to an analysis of federal data by the Associated Press.

Nearly two-thirds of the leaks during that time have been linked to corrosion or failures of material, welding, or equipment failures, which are often associated with older pipelines, but can occur in newer ones, too.


Other leaks were blamed on natural disasters or human error.

Since 1995, there have been more than 2,000 significant accidents involving pipelines carrying crude oil and refined petroleum products, with $3 billion in property damage, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. After dipping to 77 in 2009, the figure spiked to at least 121 in each of the past two years.

No cause has yet been determined for this week’s pipeline failure northwest of Santa Barbara. Up to 105,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled, making it among the largest spills in the US over the past two decades.

The leak covered sand and rocks with a thick, tar-like goo and forced two state beaches to close. About a fifth of the oil reached the Pacific Ocean. Federal regulators on Friday prohibited the pipeline from reopening until corrective actions are taken.

Plains All American Pipeline LP, which operates the pipeline, and its subsidiaries have reported 223 accidents along their lines since 2006. Those accidents resulted in a combined 864,300 gallons of spilled hazardous liquids, damages topping $32 million, and 25 federal enforcement actions.

The pipe in California had no previous problems and was thoroughly inspected in 2012, according to the company. It underwent similar tests about two weeks ago, although the results had not been analyzed.