LOS ANGELES — The oil company accused of negligence this week for failing to properly respond to an October oil spill off the Southern California coast is set to begin permanent repair work, according to leaked documents reviewed by NBC News, but critics say approval of the work appears rushed.
As early as Friday morning, divers will descend about 160 feet below the surface to begin placing what documents describe as a “steel patch” over a cracked area of pipe that was temporarily repaired in the wake of the Oct. 1 spill.
The patch is designed to allow the pipeline to be thoroughly cleaned and flushed before two large sections of pipe — totaling nearly 300 feet — are removed from the seafloor and ultimately replaced at a later date.
The plan was circulated to state and federal regulators by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no more than 48 hours before the work was set to begin and required agencies to notify the Corps within a day if they had comments on the work.
The listed contact person for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a federal regulatory agency that oversees offshore oil work, was out of the office during that time according to an automatic reply when contacted by NBC News.
Later phases of the plan call for new sections of pipe to be brought in, and finally concrete mats to be installed over top to protect it. A spokesperson for pipeline owner Amplify Energy said so far only the first part of the job has been approved by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
One critic points to the emergency repair process as an example of a cozy relationship between industry and regulators.
Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director and senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the repair plan should have gone through a permitting process that allowed for more agency and public oversight.
She likened the permit notice to a “Christmas Gift” for Amplify Energy.
“This looks like an instance where the Army Corps is essentially thinking of itself as customer service to the oil company to get the pipeline and platform going again, rather than providing the strict oversight to protect against water pollution,” Sakashita said.
A representative for one of the other agencies listed on the document, the California Coastal Commission, told NBC News by email that “commission staff have responded to the notice and expressed concern to the Corps about the inclusion of both the proposed temporary and permanent repair projects under a single emergency authorization.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday night.
In its application for the emergency work, Amplify indicated the repair would “address an imminent threat to life or property” by securing the pipeline against further oil contamination.
In public statements in the days following the spill, the company’s CEO Martyn Willshire said the pipeline had been “suctioned” at both ends to “keep all the crude out of the pipeline.”
A 13-inch-long crack was ultimately identified as the source of the leak, and how it got there is still being investigated. Authorities believe a ship’s anchor may have hooked and dragged the pipeline out of position as early as a year prior to the spill.
Oil sheen has been reported on the water two times in recent weeks, the most recent on Tuesday. Authorities have not named a definite source.
The pipeline that leaked is part of a complex that began development in the 1970s, and according to documents filed at the time, some parts of the system are now a decade beyond the expected date of abandonment.
This week, an indictment charged Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries with a misdemeanor count of negligent discharge of oil that could result in millions of dollars in criminal penalties. A grand jury said in the indictment that the companies failed to properly respond to leak detection alarms and that the crew had not been properly trained on the system.
In response, the company said in a statement that the system was not functioning as designed, signaling a leak in a place that could not be detected by personnel and that “had the crew known there was an actual oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately.”