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Pipeline company found guilty in 2015 Santa Barbara County oil spill

Two men rescue an oil-soaked sea bird at Refugio State Beach following the rupture of a nearby Plains All American pipeline on May 19, 2015. A Santa Barbara Superior Court jury on Friday returned guilty verdicts on nine criminal counts filed against the Texas-based company related to the spill. A mistrial was declared on three other counts.
Two men rescue an oil-soaked sea bird at Refugio State Beach following the rupture of a nearby Plains All American pipeline on May 19, 2015. A Santa Barbara Superior Court jury on Friday returned guilty verdicts on nine criminal counts filed against the Texas-based company related to the spill. A mistrial was declared on three other counts. Noozhawk.com

After months of trial and a week of deliberations, a Superior Court jury on Friday returned guilty verdicts on multiple criminal counts against Plains All American Pipeline in connection with the May 2015 crude oil spill near Refugio State Beach on the Gaviota Coast.

The company was convicted of one felony and eight misdemeanor counts, according to Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

Guilty verdicts were reached on the following charges:

  • Failing to properly maintain the highly pressurized Line 901 pipeline that runs along the Gaviota Coast.

  • Failing to timely call emergency response agencies about the oil spill.

  • Two counts of killing marine mammals.

  • Three counts of killing protected sea birds.

  • Killing other sea life.

  • Discharging oil onto land or water, in violation of county ordinances.

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The jury was unable to reach verdicts on three other charges, and a mistrial was declared on those counts.

The company is scheduled to return to court Dec. 13 for sentencing, which presumably will involve substantial fines. Dudley said the likely amount has not yet been determined because of the complexity of the charges.

Houston-based All American operates two pipelines in the county, both of which were shut down after the May 19, 2015, breach leaked an estimated 123,228 gallons of crude oil. The oil oozed out from the underground pipeline north of Highway 101 and ran down into the ocean several hundred yards away.

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A Plains All American pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in May 2015, releasing 142,800 gallons of heavy crude oil. The company wants to reopen the pipeline. Giana Magnoli Noozhawk.com

Miles of coastline and near-shore waters were sullied, prompting a massive cleanup response from local, state and federal agencies.

“Santa Barbara County is frequently referred to as paradise,” Dudley said in a statement. “The visual crown jewel of our paradise is our beaches and mountains. This spill killed our marine life, harmed not just our beaches and ocean but also our businesses ...

“This was truly a ‘David vs. Goliath’ prosecution with a few outstanding government lawyers zealously seeking justice against a large company with teams of lawyers. Special thanks to our hard-working jury, who generously gave of their time and energy, and to our former California Attorney General Kamala Harris for her willingness to pursue this historic prosecution.”

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The case was prosecuted jointly by the District Attorney’s Office (Deputy District Attorney Kevin Weichbrod) and the California Attorney General’s Office (Supervising Deputy Attorney General Brett Morris and Deputy Attorneys General Dennis Beck and Olivia Karlin).

“Engaging in this kind of reckless conduct is not just irresponsible — it’s criminal,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Today’s verdict should send a message: If you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue prosecuting corporate negligence and willful ignorance to the fullest extent of the law.”

Trial testimony started May 14, when Santa Barbara County firefighters described finding oil in the ocean near Refugio State Beach about 15 miles west of Goleta, tracing it to the source uphill and sounding the alarm with emergency notifications.

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A cleanup vessel works offshore to recover some of the 123,228 gallons of crude oil that spilled from a Plains All American pipeline near Refugio State Beach in May 2015. Tom Bolton Noozhawk.com

Plains personnel were on the scene of the leak fairly quickly since they had been in the area for a scheduled oil spill drill, but were not the ones to notify the National Response Center or the California Office of Emergency Services, according to trial testimony. Santa Barbara County officials made that notification.

Plains’ designated notification person did not notify the NRC until 2:54 p.m., which was more than an hour after Plains personnel knew Line 901 had ruptured, according to testimony.

Prosecutors argued that the company failed to follow part of its own response plan by not making the notification within an hour, while defense attorneys have argued that the one-hour timeline was not as important since responders already knew about the leak.

Attorneys for Plains argued that the company did not knowingly cause the rupture, and that the case is not about hindsight.

The company’s most recent inspection results before the leak, from 2012, indicated the wall thickness at the rupture site was much thicker than it really was, according to testimony.

No individual employees are named as defendants in this case, although one, James Buchanan, had been charged for his alleged failure to notify authorities within one hour of the leak being confirmed.

Those charges eventually were dropped, and Buchanan testified in the case and appeared in the courtroom audience during closing arguments.

Plains officials could not be reached for comment following the verdict.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNewsand @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.
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