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Legislators, Environmental Groups Call for Better Pipeline Safety a Year After Refugio Oil Spill

Local elected officials talk about new laws proposed since the crude oil spill in southern Santa Barbara County

Legislators and environmental groups including Linda Krop from the Environmental Defense Center gathered at Refugio State Beach Thursday on the one-year anniversary of the oil spill.
Legislators and environmental groups including Linda Krop from the Environmental Defense Center gathered at Refugio State Beach Thursday on the one-year anniversary of the oil spill.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

One year to the day after one of the worst oil spills in Santa Barbara County history, elected officials and environmental organizations held a press conference Thursday at Refugio State Beach, calling for closer regulation of the oil industry, greater protection of the environment, and harsh penalties for Plains All American Pipeline.

“You could almost not think of a more beautiful place that could be destroyed — however temporarily — by an oil spill,” Assemblyman Das Williams said, pointing out the spot nearby where he learned to surf.

A rupture in the company’s crude oil transportation pipeline spilled up to 142,800 gallons of crude oil onto the Gaviota Coast shoreline and into the ocean.

“Time and time again, we have seen oil and gas pipelines fail, causing irreparable harm to lives, property, and environmental habitat,” said Wendy Motta, district representative for Congresswoman Lois Capps.

Capps has been helping draft federal pipeline safety regulation over the past year.

“As long as we rely on oil, no law, regulation, or inspection schedule will fully safeguard against the next spill,” said James Joyce, district director for State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson.

Joyce outlined state laws from the past year that were written in response to the oil spill, such as Jackson’s Senate Bill 295, which subjects pipelines under state oversight to inspections by the state Fire Marshal, and SB 350, which addresses pollution reduction and clean energy.

“The voices for a future free of fossil fuel need to grow louder and more insistent,” Joyce said.

Refugio State Beach on Thursday was overcast but oil-free, after being the center of a massive clean-up effort after the May 19, 2015 oil spill. Click to view larger
Refugio State Beach on Thursday was overcast but oil-free, after being the center of a massive clean-up effort after the May 19, 2015 oil spill.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Williams called for stricter protections and regulations that deter future spills, citing a law he authored increasing the safety and technology standards for pipelines in environmentally sensitive areas.

“Some folks who should have learned from the spill have not, and so we need to make sure that the level of regulation to hold companies accountable is in place,” he said.

“And there has been progress. Both Senator Jackson’s bill and my own passed despite the very strong power of the oil companies in Sacramento.”

Williams and the Environmental Defense Center also called on pipelines that are transporting oil within the state to be overseen by California, which has stricter regulations than the federal government, which has jurisdiction over Line 901.

Michael Lyons, board president of Get Oil Out!, said the only way to truly prevent the environmental and economic effects of oil spills is to remove the industry from water and coastal areas.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper executive director Kira Redmond outlined the organization’s new effort to collect data on tar balls in the Channel in an effort to determine what comes from natural seeps and what entered the water through man-made means.

Refugio State Beach was coated with crude oil on May 19, 2015 after a Plains All American Pipeline 24-inch line ruptured. Click to view larger
Refugio State Beach was coated with crude oil on May 19, 2015 after a Plains All American Pipeline 24-inch line ruptured.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara Sierra Club president Katie Davis added that offshore fracking and efforts by oil company Venoco to drill on the Goleta coast pose new threats that warrant immediate attention.

Before turning to questions, Community Environmental Council executive director Sigrid Wright sounded an optimistic tone.

“If there are any silver linings to these all-too-frequent industrial energy accidents that are causing millions of dollars of damage to our local economy, it’s that a growing number of people are calling for a clean energy revolution,” she said, adding that the Tri-County region is closing in on 1-gigawatt of solar power installations.

The Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees were indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury Monday on 46 criminal charges related to the spill.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who announced the indictment Tuesday with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said that Plains faces four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, and 42 misdemeanor charges, including failure to notify proper authorities and violations of Fish and Game Code. One employee, James Buchanan, was also named in the indictment.

The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned in Santa Barbara Superior Court on June 2.

“We are grateful that the state attorney general and the county district attorney have filed criminal charges against Plains because Plains must be held accountable for the damage that has been done and must address its wrongdoings,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center.

Miles of Plains pipeline in Santa Barbara County had to be purged of oil in case the corrosion was more widespread than the original rupture, Krop said.

After the damage caused by the spill is fully assessed, she said, there will be a public process to design restoration projects that Plains will ultimately have to pay for, whether through their own decision or after a court order.

Federal regulators released a final investigative report on the spill, which was caused by external corrosion to the pipeline, on Thursday. 

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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