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Plains Pipeline Attorneys File Motion to Move Criminal Case Outside Santa Barbara County

Attorneys for the pipeline company responsible for the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill have filed a motion to move the criminal case to another county, saying there was “highly prejudicial publicity in Santa Barbara County making it impossible for Plains to receive a fair and impartial trial here.”

Plains attorneys Susan Yu and Thomas Mesereau Jr. of Los Angeles filed the motion, and argued that media coverage included “inflammatory” headlines and footage of “oil-slicked beaches.”

An estimated 123,228 gallons of crude oil were spilled May 19, 2015, after a pipeline rupture in the corroded Plains line along the Gaviota Coast, according to the final investigative report by federal regulators.

Plains All American Pipeline has pleaded not guilty to 46 charges, including four felonies and 42 misdemeanors, that allege 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 employee, James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist, was charged with three misdemeanors for failing to immediately notify authorities after confirming the spill and the source of the spill.

He also entered a plea of not guilty.

The alleged victims of the spill include the beloved coastline, Pacific Ocean, “majestic wildlife” and Santa Barbara residents who filed lawsuits, while the Texas-based Plains is seen as a member of “big oil,” attorneys argued.

In the motion, attorneys also claim that the criminal charges were “sensational,” and that “many members of the jury pool will likely view these offenses as being on par with murder.”

Everyone in the jury pool could consider themselves a victim since there have been reports of tax revenue impacts from the spill, they argued.

The spill prompted hearings, new pipeline safety legislation, and political uproar, attorneys said.  

Plains attorneys want the trial moved to Kern County since it has no coastline, and Buchanan and other witnesses live there, or to Los Angeles County.

They consider Los Angeles far enough away from Santa Barbara, and the county has a large enough population to dissipate media coverage, according to court documents.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case along with the Attorney General’s Office, plans to file an opposition to the change-of-venue motion, Deputy District Attorney Kevin Weichbrod said.

Santa Barbara County is where the spill occurred and where the community was harmed, he said.

The change of venue motion will be heard Sept. 8.

Judge Jean Dandona ruled that the Grand Jury indictment hearing transcripts will stay sealed until after the case has been adjudicated, Weichbrod said. 

Dandona decided to unseal the witness list, but stayed the order pending an Aug. 11 hearing on the matter, he said.  

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.

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