The pipeline company responsible for the Refugio Oil Spill wants to move its criminal trial out of Santa Barbara County, and argued in court Thursday that media coverage and politicians’ statements have made it impossible to hold a fair trial locally.
On May 19, 2015, a 24-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 123,228 gallons of crude oil onto the coastline and into the ocean near Refugio State Beach.
Plains All American Pipeline was indicted on 46 criminal counts after an investigation by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office, and attorneys for the oil company filed a motion for change of venue.
Attorneys for James Buchanan, a Plains employee who was indicted on three misdemeanor counts, also filed a motion for change of venue.
Judge Jean Dandona heard arguments after receiving “thorough briefs” from both sides, and will issue a written ruling sometime in the future.
So many attorneys attended Thursday's hearing — 10, not counting the ones sitting in the public section — that Dandona said the trial, if held in Santa Barbara County, may have to be moved to a larger courtroom than her Department 6.
Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Weichbrod, who is working the case along with lawyers from the California Attorney General's Office, said after the hearing that “it's appropriate to try the case here, where the alleged crimes were committed.”
The matter will be back in court Nov. 17, although there may not be a ruling on the venue change by that date.
Attorneys for Plains argued that the Texas-based company is seen as an outsider, a member of “big oil,” and that prejudicial media coverage means it can’t get a fair trial in Santa Barbara County.
Dandona said that the majority of media coverage cited as evidence came from outside Santa Barbara County, and Plains attorneys argued that no community was as directly affected as Santa Barbara – a place where the 1969 spill still resonates.
Plains received hundreds of claims, there is a class-action civil suit, and there was a public press conference to announce the criminal indictment, which isn’t normal, argued attorney Gary Lincenberg.
One of Buchanan’s attorneys, Douglas Richards, said, “Our fear is that local residents in Santa Barbara County see themselves as victims” of something Plains and Buchanan did or didn’t do. It’s a “very hostile environment,” he said, citing social media posts.
Richards argued that Buchanan, who lives and works in Kern County, should not be tried in Santa Barbara.
Deputy Attorney General Brett Morris argued that Buchanan’s alleged actions — for failing to immediately notify authorities after confirming the spill and its source — had an impact on Santa Barbara County.
Responding agencies didn’t have confirmation of the spill or additional information that could have helped, he said.
Richards argued that the prosecutors have no evidence Buchanan’s call at 2:54 p.m. caused responders any delay.
The pipeline company's attorneys, who have the burden of proving the trial should be moved, also submitted survey results claiming that most people contacted had heard of the spill and many thought Plains should be punished.
Attorney General’s Office attorneys argued that the survey doesn’t carry much weight, and Dandona asked about the specific language of the survey.
The “should be punished” question gave no explanation of what the punishment would be – cleanup, civil damages or something else, Dandona said.
The survey asked a “very leading question” after explaining the indictment, she said: “Do you believe it happened because the oil company was negligent or violated the law?”
The indictment alleges the company discharged a pollutant into state waters, knowingly made a false or misleading oil report to the California Office of Emergency Services, failed to notify the National Response Center within one hour after confirmation of a pipeline release, and violated Fish and Game code by taking protected and migratory birds, and other animals (which died as results of the spill).
Plains and Buchanan have pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.