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NOTE: LA Harbor Area citizens, this is the same company that owns the Rancho LPG tanks on Gaffey. A disaster in the making!
By Doug Smith, Brittny Mejia and Javier Panzar
A grand jury has indicted an oil pipeline company and one of its employees on criminal charges related to a massive oil spill last year in Santa Barbara County, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Plains All-American Pipeline has been indicted on 46 criminal charges, including four felony counts, while a single employee of the Houston-based company was indicted on three criminal charges relating to the 2015 spill, according to Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Joyce Dudley.
Both state and local prosecutors had been investigating possible wrongdoing related to the pipe rupture, which sent oil onto beaches and into the ocean.
Plains faces up to $2.8 million in fines plus additional costs and penalties, prosecutors said.
“This is the first step in holding Plains accountable and we are committed to putting all the resources that are necessary into seeing this case through,” Harris said at a Santa Barbara press conference.
“In this state we value our environment, we value our pristine coastal communities, we value the precious wildlife and the oceans that we are proud to call a big part of California. Anyone that violates the law … is going to be held accountable,” she said.
The corroded pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline ruptured May 19, 2015, and spilled roughly 143,000 gallons of crude along the coast near picturesque Refugio State Beach west of Santa Barbara. About 21,000 gallons made its way from where the underground pipe is buried above U.S. 101 into a storm culvert and flowed into the Pacific Ocean.
Some tar balls from the spill were found as far away as Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County, state officials said this week.
The section of pipe that broke had worn down to 1/16 of an inch, and investigators found a six-inch crack along the bottom of the pipe, according to preliminary findings from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
In a statement posted to its website, Plains officials said they were “deeply disappointed” by the decision to pursue criminal charges in the matter.
“Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident, and that criminal charges are unwarranted,” the company said. “We will vigorously defend ourselves against these charges and are confident we will demonstrate that the charges have no merit and represent an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident.”
The company said it “sincerely regrets” the accidental release and its effects on the community, the environment and wildlife. To date, Plains has spent $150 million, either directly or indirectly, on the response effort, the statement said.
The indictment remains sealed, however prosecutors said the charges against Plains include four felony counts, including discharging a pollutant into state waters. Both the company and James Buchanan — a 41-year-old environmental and regulatory compliance specialist at Plains — were charged with misdemeanor violations for failing to provide timely notice of the oil spill to the Office of Emergency Services. In addition, the company was indicted on three dozen misdemeanor charges linked to the spill’s impact on birds and mammals, according to Harris.
The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on June 6 in Santa Barbara.
At Tuesday’s press conference, prosecutors described Plains as being uncooperative during the criminal investigation, but declined to elaborate.
“They have, I think, been less than cooperative,” Harris said. “As we go forward, we’ll see if their cooperation and performance in this process improves. It’s been quite disappointing so far.”
Environmental advocates said Tuesday they were pleased to hear of the indictments.
Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, said she had reached out to the district attorney’s office about a week ago because she knew the one-year statute of limitations for any kind of a criminal filing was approaching.
“We are relieved that the matter is being pursued aggressively by the attorney general and our district attorney and we look forward to seeing the specific allegations,” Krop said. “We’re happy that the agencies seem to be taking this seriously and that the parties who are liable will be held accountable.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club also said they approved of the action.
“There’s some satisfaction in knowing that the legal authorities are pursuing this,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “We hope it will result in some penalties that can be used to help restore some of the damage.”
Phillips, who is based in Sacramento, said the pipeline break had a far-reaching effect, and the indictments might help illuminate exactly how it happened, why there wasn’t a quicker response and why there wasn’t some kind of automatic shutoff device.
Although the company said in a statement that the spill was an accident and they felt no criminal behavior occurred, Phillips challenged that.
“I think at the time it was pretty clear that they weren’t doing the appropriate monitoring and that they have a long history of not doing the appropriate monitoring,” she said.
In the weeks following the pipe rupture, Plains officials released a chronology of events that illustrated their difficulty in reporting the spill to regulators.
The company did not alert federal regulators to the leak until nearly 3 p.m. May 19, despite the fact that operators in Midland had shut down the line at 11:30 a.m.
According to the company timeline, workers near Refugio State Beach didn’t know about the leak until they received reports of oil in the water from state parks staff around noon. Initially, company employees struggled to spot oil leaking from the underground pipeline.
Around 1:30 p.m., they realized oil was reaching the ocean via a storm culvert near where a corroded pipe had broken.
Meanwhile, company officials in Bakersfield, who were responsible for alerting federal regulators, were unable to contact employees near where Line 901 ruptured.
In a letter to lawmakers, the company said workers in the field were “busy dealing with the immediate demands and distractions.”
Finally, at 2:56 p.m., federal regulators were notified. However, company employees in Bakersfield provided an inaccurate estimate of the volume of oil that had spilled.
The company initially estimated about 21,000 gallons of crude were spilled and later revised the number to 101,000 gallons. Ultimately, the company estimated that as many as 143,000 gallons had escaped.
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