The Breakdown

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Atwater oil spill: There are thousands of oil pipelines all over LA

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The spill of 10,000 gallons of crude oil Thursday from a pipeline near Atwater Village in Los Angeles raised this question for Atwater Village Neighborhood Council co-chairs Courtney Morris and Torin Dunnavant:

"Why are there crude oil pipelines in Atwater Village?" they asked in a statement.

The answer? There are actually tens of thousands of oil pipelines all over Los Angeles, though residents may not know it, industry officials told KPCC.

"In some parts of the city they are stacked like airplanes, one underneath each other," said Richard B. Kuprewicz, a Redmond, Washington-based pipeline consultant. "It's not unusual when we're digging to our pipeline to have to be real careful not to hit a pipeline above or below it."

RELATED: 10,000 gallons of oil spill on Los Angeles streets

The U.S. has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.5 million miles of pipe zigzagging across the country, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, and L.A. has one of the densest networks of pipelines of any city in the nation.

The reason there are so many pipelines here is because of the city's size and its thirst for oil, and also the area's legacy as a major hub of oil production.

"Just south of Los Angeles, in the Monterey area, you have one of the largest gas and oil fields on the planet," said Tim Fisher, founder of Bakken Energy Services. "You have offshore and onshore drilling, and you also have a refinery by Long Beach. All of that oil and gas has to get from location to location, so you have tens of thousands of pipelines throughout California."

But how do you know if there's a pipeline — like the one that ruptured in Atwater Village — near you? Finding out can be difficult, and that's by design, in part due to post-9/11 security concerns, industry officials said.

“It’s certainly true that pipeline companies are not broadcasting their routes," said John Stoody, Vice President of Government & Public Relations at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a trade group.

Still, pipeline companies spend a considerable amount of time and money communicating with homes and businesses that are within 100 feet of pipelines to avoid anyone damaging their lines, Stoody said.

“The single largest cause of injury from a pipeline release is damage from [a] third party from accidentally rupturing a pipeline," said Stoody.

In general, the industry asserts that pipelines are extremely safe, arguing that most of the time oil shipped by pipeline reaches its destination safely. Pipeline spills ­– what the industry calls releases – decreased more than 60 percent from 2001 to 2012, Stoody said.

"So while it’s true incidents do occur on rare occasions, it's a relatively rare occurrence overall when you’re looking at 300 million people in America and all of their daily fuel needs," Stoody said.

Fisher, the founder of Bakken Energy Services agrees, adding that pipeline companies hate spills as much as anyone. They can’t sell oil that’s been spilled, after all, and cleanups are costly.

"There's pipelines all over," he said. "The reason you don't know about it or hear about it is because it's safe.”

But Kuprewicz, the pipeline consultant, says the public has a right to be concerned about pipelines after spills such as the one Thursday in Atwater Village.

If they're operated and maintained in a prudent manner, they can be very safe, said Kuprewicz. The key is how well they are maintained and how they are operated, and "that's a decision you have to look at pipeline by pipeline."

Jamie Court, President of Santa-Monica based Consumer Watchdog, expects there to be more pipeline accidents over the next decade, because of fracking, seismic activity, climate change and aging infrastructure.

“I think this is going to be an increasing problem," McCourt said. “What happens is pipes get old, and they’re holding toxic chemicals, and there are problems. In an earthquake-prone region, this can be catastrophic problem.”

Unfortunately, for the public, knowing how well a pipeline is operated and maintained is nearly impossible, Kuprewicz said.

"There used to be a lot more public information in the public domain, but after 9/11 a lot of that was made more secretive," Kuprewicz said. "Where there is secrecy and less transparency, the public will get more suspicious. In many cases, that’s justified.”

Crude Oil Pipelines in California

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