Pixel Tracker

Monday, November 19 , 2018, 4:15 pm | Partly Cloudy with Haze 66º


Judge Hears Arguments on Motion to Move Plains Oil Spill Criminal Case Out of Santa Barbara County

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. 

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.