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Santa Barbara County Hires Outside Firm for Refugio Oil Spill Litigation

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve a contract with an outside law firm for its litigation against Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.

Santa Barbara County filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Dec. 29 and an updated complaint in May, and asked the court for damages and an order “permanently enjoining defendants from operating a pipeline in Santa Barbara County without adequate safety and response measures and without adequate ongoing maintenance and monitoring.”

The county had made claims for, and received, about $1.98 million from Plains as of December, but County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni wrote in a staff report that, “We believe that the county’s total remaining damages likely are greater than $1 million,” including lost income and tax revenues.

“The purpose of the litigation is to prevent county taxpayers from otherwise bearing the burden of those remaining damages,” Ghizzoni said.

The supervisors approved a contingent fee contract with Baron & Budd, the same firm the city of Santa Barbara used for its Refugio Oil Spill-related litigation against Plains.

Santa Barbara settled its case with Plains last year for $2.5 million, City Attorney Ariel Calonne said.

A contingent fee contract means the county would pay the firm 20-percent of any net recovery, and the firm would advance expenses, including expert fees.

The County Counsel’s office has been handling the case thus far, Ghizzoni said in his report to the board, but the office lost three employees to retirement or resignation since March, and using outside attorneys would allow county people to focus on other matters, and avoid more overtime.

In the complaint, the county alleges the ruptured Line 901 “is the only pipeline of its type operating without an automatic shut-off system,” and Plains All American Pipeline has a history of incidents and spills in pipelines it operates.

“Defendants’ failure to ensure adequate maintenance and care of the pipeline, and its subsequent oil spill and shut-down, caused significant damage to property and natural resources and injury to businesses and services. Through this action, the county seeks compensation for its damages, including without limitation lost tax, income, and other revenue and damages to and loss of use of county properties,” the amended complaint alleges.

Plains All American Pipeline is named in multiple civil lawsuits, including class actions, and a criminal trial against Plains, related to the Refugio Oil Spill, is underway in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

The company faces felony and misdemeanor charges including discharging a pollutant into state waters, knowingly making a false or misleading oil spill report to the California Office of Emergency Services, failing to notify the National Response Center within one hour after confirmation of a pipeline release of oil, and violating the Fish and Game code by taking protected and migratory birds, and other animals (which died as a result of the spill).

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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