Plains All American Pipeline faces 46 criminal charges in Refugio oil spill

An oil-soaked bird briefly makes it to shore before turning back out to the waves, following the Plains All American Pipeline spill at Refugio State Beach in May 2015.
An oil-soaked bird briefly makes it to shore before turning back out to the waves, following the Plains All American Pipeline spill at Refugio State Beach in May 2015. Noozhawk.com

A Santa Barbara County grand jury indicted Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees on 46 total criminal charges related to the Refugio oil spill that occurred a year ago this week.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office announced Monday’s indictment at a news conference Tuesday morning.

They have been investigating the incident, along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, since the May 19, 2015, pipeline rupture on the Gaviota Coast, which spilled up to 142,000 gallons of crude oil onto the shoreline and into the ocean.

“The negative impacts of this conduct were immediate and tragic,” Harris said.

The indictment announcement shows “these matters are taken seriously, and we do pursue them, and justice is on its way,” she said.

Her office and the District Attorney’s Office jointly launched an investigation 72 hours after the spill, and the indictment is the first step to holding Plains accountable, Harris said.

Dudley said the indictment includes four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, and 42 misdemeanor charges, including failure to notify proper authorities and violations of Fish and Game Code.

One employee was also indicted: 41-year-old James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist.

The defendants will be arraigned in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on June 2.

No indictment details will be available until the court unseals the documents, Dudley said.

If found guilty, Houston-based Plains faces fines up to $2.8 million, she said.

Both Dudley and Harris characterized Plains as uncooperative during the criminal investigation.

The grand jury was convened 14 times, and the indictments “are a response to the evidence presented and speak to the alleged criminal culpability of both the corporation and an individual who are alleged to have caused harm to Santa Barbara County’s magnificent natural surroundings and death to some of its majestic wildlife,” Dudley said.

Prosecutors had a one-year deadline to file misdemeanor charges in the case.

Crude oil from the spill reached nearly nine miles out into the Pacific Ocean, coated the county’s coastline and impacted the fragile ecosystem of the Gaviota Coast and a Native American burial site, Harris said.

“To get a criminal indictment is huge,” said Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center after the announcement. She said there was “clearly wrongdoing leading up to the spill” and believes the charges will warn other companies that they could be held liable for spills.

“Plains All American’s record has finally caught up with it,” Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said in a statement.

“I’m relieved to see the company being charged for its irresponsible actions. Sadly, no punishment can undo the harm done to wildlife, the Pacific Ocean, or our beaches and coastal communities. The only safe and appropriate action to take is to end our dependence on dirty, outdated fuels and transition to clean, renewable energy.”

Federal regulators have not completed their investigation of the spill but already concluded that external corrosion caused the pipeline rupture.

According to a statement from Plains, the 46 criminal counts included in the indictments include 10 counts related to the crude oil spill or reporting the release and 36 related to “wildlife alleged to have been taken as a result of the accidental release.”

Dozens of birds and marine mammals were found oiled or dead after the spill.

As the responsible party for the spill, Plains paid for the emergency response, cleanup and claims filed by people who were financially impacted.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Plains pursuing compensation, including one from fishermen impacted by the spill-caused local fishery closure.

“Plains is deeply disappointed by the decision of the California attorney general and Santa Barbara district attorney to pursue criminal charges against Plains and one of its employees in connection with the 2015 accident,” the company wrote in a statement.

“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. 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.”