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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 10:06 am | Fair 56º


Attorneys Give Closing Arguments After 3-Month Refugio Oil Leak Criminal Case

Jurors heard closing arguments this week after three months of testimony in the Refugio oil pipeline leak criminal trial against Plains All American Pipeline, the operator of the ruptured Line 901 that runs along Santa Barbara County’s Gaviota coast.

The Houston-based company 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.

Plains is charged with 15 criminal counts related to the leak, including that it knew or should have known its acts or omissions would cause a rupture, it knowingly discharged a pollutant into state waters, it deposited petroleum into the ocean, its oil caused the death of marine mammals and birds, and it failed to follow material provisions of its leak response plan, specifically failing to notify the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center of a spill within an hour.

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.

Attorneys from the prosecution and defense gave closing arguments Thursday and Friday, setting the stage for the jury to start deliberations.

Nothing the attorneys say is evidence in the case, but they used the time as a way to summarize the last three months of testimony, including pipeline inspection results, the company’s oil leak response plan, a timeline of the leak response, and other related issues.

Prosecuting attorneys, from the state Attorney General’s Office and county District Attorney’s Office, argued that Plains knew about the external corrosion on Line 901 — which was determined to have caused the rupture — and should have known that its actions, or failure to act, would cause a leak.

They also talked about the response timeline after the breach was discovered.

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 previous 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 trial testimony.

Prosecutors have 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.

The charges have since been dropped, and Buchanan testified in the case and appeared in the courtroom audience during closing arguments.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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