Judge Jean Dandona made the ruling Monday after considering arguments from the oil and gas pipeline company attorneys and prosecution team, which includes attorneys from the California Attorney General’s Office and the county District Attorney’s Office.
On May 19, 2015, a 24-inch Plains crude oil pipeline ruptured and spilled 123,228 gallons onto the coastline and into the ocean near Refugio State Beach.
Investigators determined Plains failed to detect the spill or the extensive corrosion that caused it.
One year after the spill, Plains was criminally charged with 46 felony and misdemeanor counts, including allegations of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, failure to notify proper authorities, and violating the Fish and Wildlife Code.
One employee, Kern County-based James Buchanan, faces three misdemeanor counts.
In court, Plains argued that the company could not get a fair trial in Santa Barbara County because of extensive and prejudicial media coverage, the Texas-based company is seen as an outsider and member of “big oil,” and all county residents could see themselves as victims of Plains’ alleged crimes.
Prosecutors argued against the venue change, saying media coverage was far-reaching and mostly factual. Prosecutors also objected to a telephone survey one Plains expert presented as evidence, saying it had prejudicial, leading questions.
In her ruling, Dandona determined that publicity about the spill was extensive, but “it has been widespread throughout the state and even beyond, most has been factual, and it continues to diminish with time.”
She took issue with Plains’ media content analysis as well: Most of Plains’ submitted articles were from non-local sources and non-local media wrote more about Plains’ alleged negligence, and a negative opinion about the oil industry, than local media coverage, she wrote.
She also did not find the survey convincing that the defendants could not get a fair trial within the county.
Most respondents had heard about the spill, and Dandona wrote that “this response indicates that those surveyed are aware of events; informed citizens is a good thing in a democracy.”
She concluded, “Defendant has failed to show that prospective Santa Barbara County jurors cannot, or will not, lay aside their beliefs and decide the case fairly.”
Plains also argued that the charges are sensational and that some jurors will view the offenses “on par with murder” for alleged harm to wildlife, but Dandona determined they were not sensational – and aren't murder – and the whole county and state are environmentally conscious, with valued wildlife.
Buchanan’s attorneys argued that his trial should be moved to Kern County since that’s where he was during the alleged crimes, at the Plains office in Bakersfield. Alternatively, they asked for a Kern County jury to be transported to Santa Barbara for trial.
Dandona again ruled that Santa Barbara County was an appropriate venue, since it is alleged that the county was affected by Buchanan’s alleged acts or omissions.
The case’s next court hearing date is Feb. 23 for a readiness-and-settlement conference, said Kevin Weichbrod, who is working the case for the District Attorney’s Office.