Thursday, May 25 , 2017, 7:33 am | Overcast 57º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Plains All American Pipeline Faces 46 Criminal Charges in Refugio Oil Spill

Felony and misdemeanor counts filed against company, one employee related to pipeline break last May

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson announce a grand jury indicted Plains All American Pipeline of 46 felony and misdemeanor charges related to the Refugio Oil Spill.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson announce a grand jury indicted Plains All American Pipeline of 46 felony and misdemeanor charges related to the Refugio Oil Spill.  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

A Santa Barbara County grand jury indicted Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees on 46 total criminal charges related to the Refugio Oil Spill that occurred a year ago this week.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office announced Monday's indictment at a press conference Tuesday morning. 

They have been investigating the incident, along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, since the May 19, 2015, pipeline rupture on the Gaviota Coast, which spilled up to 142,000 gallons of crude oil onto the shoreline and into the ocean.

“The negative impacts of this conduct were immediate and tragic,” Harris said. 

The indictment announcement shows “these matters are taken seriously and we do pursue them, and justice is on its way,” she said. 

Her office and the District Attorney's Office jointly launched an investigation 72 hours after the spill and the indictment is the first step to holding Plains accountable, she said. 

Scroll down to watch the Santa Barbara County video of the press conference announcing the indictment.

Dudley said the indictment includes 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 was also indicted, 41-year-old James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist.

Oil coats Refugio State Beach last May after a a spill caused by the rupture of a Plains All American Pipeline onshore. Click to view larger
Oil coats Refugio State Beach last May after a a spill caused by the rupture of a Plains All American Pipeline onshore. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

The defendants will be arraigned in Santa Barbara Superior Court on June 2. 

No indictment details will be available until the Santa Barbara County Superior Court unseals the documents, Dudley said. 

If found guilty, the Houston, Texas-based Plains faces fines up to $2.8 million, she said. 

Both Dudley and Harris characterized Plains as uncooperative during the criminal investigation. 

The grand jury was convened 14 times and the indictments “are a response to the evidence presented and speak to the alleged criminal culpability of both the corporation and an individual who are alleged to have caused harm to Santa Barbara County's magnificent natural surroundings and death to some of its majestic wildlife,” Dudley said. 

Prosecutors had a one-year deadline to file misdemeanor charges in the case.

Crude oil from the spill reached nearly nine miles out into the Pacific Ocean, coated the county's coastline, impacted the fragile ecosystem of the Gaviota Coast and a Native American burial site, Harris said.

“To get a criminal indictment is huge,” said Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center after the announcement. She said there was “clearly wrongdoing leading up to the spill” and believes the charges will warn other companies that they could be held liable for spills.

“Plains All American’s record has finally caught up with it,” Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said in a statement.

An oiled seabird floats in the ocean off Refugio State Beach last May following a spill caused by the rupture of a Plains All American Pipeline onshore. The company is facing 46 criminal counts related to the spill, many due to wildlife that died. Click to view larger
An oiled seabird floats in the ocean off Refugio State Beach last May following a spill caused by the rupture of a Plains All American Pipeline onshore. The company is facing 46 criminal counts related to the spill, many due to wildlife that died. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

“I’m relieved to see the company being charged for its irresponsible actions. Sadly, no punishment can undo the harm done to wildlife, the Pacific Ocean, or our beaches and coastal communities. The only safe and appropriate action to take is to end our dependence on dirty, outdated fuels and transition to clean, renewable energy.”    

Federal regulators have not completed their investigation of the spill, but already concluded that external corrosion caused the pipeline rupture.

According to a statement from Plains, the 46 criminal counts included in the indictments include 10 counts related to the crude oil spill or reporting the release and 36 related to “wildlife alleged to have been taken as a result of the accidental release.”

Dozens of birds and marine mammals were found oiled or dead after the spill

As the responsible party for the spill, Plains paid for the emergency response, clean-up, and claims filed by people financially impacted.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Plains pursuing compensation, including one from fishermen impacted by the spill-caused local fishery closure. 

Santa Barbara County’s two Plains crude oil transportation pipelines were shut down by federal regulators shortly after the spill and all South County offshore oil platforms ceased operations.

“Plains is deeply disappointed by the decision of the California Attorney General and Santa Barbara District Attorney to pursue criminal charges against Plains and one of its employees in connection with the 2015 accident,” the company wrote in a statement.

“Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident, and that criminal charges are unwarranted. We will vigorously defend ourselves against these charges and are confident we will demonstrate that the charges have no merit and represent an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident.” 

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.

  • 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 >

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 through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.



Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >