Parachute Creek spill: Day 95

This valve site is the location of the broken pressure gauge which was the cause of the Parachute Creek spill. (COGCC photo)

This valve site is the location of the broken pressure gauge which was the cause of the Parachute Creek spill. (COGCC photo)

In a letter to Governor Hickenlooper,  Bob Arrington* calls for an investigation of Williams.

The Hon. John W. Hickenlooper
Re: Williams Gas Plant spill of hydrocarbons

Dear Governor Hickenlooper,

There is something that is not ringing up as understandable to me in the Williams’ spill. Here is a modern midstream NG pipeline plant. They are using cryogenic extraction of pentane liquids and transferring them to storage tanks for later transport. This process means that as liquids are extracted from the NG stream they must be collected for pumping and pumped at pressure via pipeline to the storage tanks.

With multiple tanks, there would have to be either manual switching or sensor automatic switching upon fill. In lieu of switching operation, there would have to be feed-back turn-off of pump for the storage tank. For the last storage tank filled, this feedback would be necessary. There is a consideration of having a system that also turned off pumping in anticipation of fill and/or causing withdrawal of liquids from line. All of this would require regularly scheduled transport or transport pipelines from the tanks. In other words, a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) sub-system of controlling operations of their liquids should be in place.

In this automated age and newness of plant with latest cryogenic extraction equipment, the control systems must have features that will record, monitor, and have automatic shutdown. Such equipment has signal lights and klaxons that notify operators that such shut downs are occurring. By adding logic programs for timing, fill rates, final fill and flow data, these alarm systems can also notify operators of malfunctions or product losses. Handling materials that are potentially explosive and dangerous if they escape system, it would be negligent not to have such available equipment and systems.

These systems would have detected anomalies of operation. If such systems are not in plant and all is done by operator monitoring and observance, it should still have been noticed in first pumping operation after the gauge burst that tanks did not fill as supposed to. For the operation to continue from December 18 to January 3, without systems or operators noticing loss of over 1200 bbls of liquids [1] would be negligent real time monitoring of operation, and, if automatic equipment with warning systems was ignored in some way, it could be criminal negligence if overrides or turn-offs of alarms were involved.

It is with these thoughts in mind, I find it very hard to believe that CDPHE could come to a conclusion the spill was due to “an accidental equipment failure only”. This would indicate to me they either do not understand or have not investigated the background of operation and equipment of the plant, personnel involved, and timelines. Moreover, even with CDPHE acceptance of only the gauge burst, then this would mean Williams’ personnel had to “accidentally” discover the gauge, estimate loss in an incompetent manner and most importantly – not having adequate equipment, personnel, training, and systems in their liquids handling operation to realize the magnitude of the loss immediately as opposed to “reviewing records and data” after having it pointed out to them by an outside observer what a burst gauge can leak. At a minimum, the consent order should include revamping of their liquids operation and bring it up to current available technology and increased training of personnel.

Finally, the question arises in my mind, if Williams did realize the extent and magnitude of the spill and the full potential of loss by a burst gauge, shortly after January 3 and before their March search for pipelines, was the hydro-trenching (a rather heavy handed form of pipeline location discovery)  actually to determine the extent of the spill? If this is possible under the circumstances, then the actions could be considered an operational cover-up after initial delays in the recognition of in-plant failures to respond to a situation and the following discovery of the source of the leak. This would use setting the stage for outside “discovery” of the source by others, discovery of the plume when doing another function, and thus minimize any culpability by creating an appearance of not knowing there was a problem.  This question of thought could be a “worse case” scenario of explanation.

Definitely, intensive investigation of the Williams’ SCADA system(s) (or lack thereof) is warranted.

Respectfully,
Bob Arrington, P.E.
Battlement Mesa, CO 81635

1.  Williams, in press releases, indicated they reviewed flow records and determined the leakage loss amount and happening period of liquids production.  This indicates some monitoring and recording equipment operating in real time.

*Bob Arrington is a retired engineer and the Battlement Mesa citizen representative on Garfield County’s Energy Advisory Board (EAB). He also represents the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the Battlement Concerned Citizens.

**********

CDPHE Parachute Creek

To view the other documentation related to this incident visit the COGCC website and click on IMAGES on the left-hand side. Select “Projects” from the drop-down menu, enter 2120 as the unique identifier and click the “search” button.

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