Friday, October 19 , 2018, 7:48 pm | Fair 78º


Plains Trial Testimony Focuses on Initial Response to Refugio Oil Spill

During the second day of testimony in the Refugio Oil Spill criminal trial, Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Chris Childers recalled seeing the black slick in the ocean and recognizing it as a major incident.

On May 19, 2015, a Plains All-American Pipeline, L.P. oil and gas transmission pipeline ruptured on the Gaviota coast, spilling an estimated 123,228 gallons of crude oil. Some of the oil flowed into a culvert, under Highway 101, onto the bluffs and into the ocean near Refugio State Beach.

Opening statements were held Monday for the jury trial, in which Plains is charged with knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, failing to notify proper authorities, and violating California Fish and Game Code related to the illegal taking of animals (birds and marine mammals allegedly killed by the spill).

Childers said he called dispatch, letting the operator know it was a major incident and telling her to notify agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard and California Fish and Wildlife Department, and whoever else needed to be alerted.

Dispatch also called the California State Warning Center of the state Office of Emergency Services, known as CalOES.

A state representative then called Childers for more information on the spill, which at that point – at 12:45 p.m. on May 19, 2015, according to evidence submitted in court – had an unknown source.

“It’s thick and it’s black and it’s right on the beach,” he said in the call, estimating the slick was at that point about a 1/4-mile long and 200 feet deep.

The cause was unknown at that point, he said, adding that it was probably a broken pipeline somewhere.

Under cross examination, an attorney representing Plains asked Childers about the calls he and dispatch had made, and the government agencies who knew about the spill.

As of 12:50 p.m., five government agencies knew about the spill: County Fire, the county Office of Emergency Management, California State Parks, the U.S. Coast Guard and CalOES, Childers confirmed.

Plains representatives were on the scene of the spill and the ruptured pipeline around the same time County Fire personnel were, according to previous testimony, but some of the criminal charges relate to the company’s alleged failure to notify the proper authorities as required.

The Plains employees were going to participate in, coincidentally, an oil spill response drill at county Fire Station 18 in Gaviota planned for that morning, simulating an oil spill at a Freeport-McMoRan onshore facility.

Childers testified that in the early hours after discovering the spill, the only clean-up effort was the one by his firefighters making a temporary dam to stop the oil from flowing through the culvert to the ocean.

Helicopters and at least one clean-up boat arrived on the scene the afternoon of May 19, according to an incident report he referred to in court, but he recalled thinking there should have been more.

“I thought we were cleaning up far too slowly,” he said.

County Fire backed out of the Unified Command structure by the first night, since they did not have a role in the clean-up, Childers added.

The Unified Command did include the Coast Guard, Fish & Wildlife, the county Office of Emergency Management, State Parks and Plains, he said.

Childers, who was personable on the stand and talks quickly, prompted Judge James Herman to ask him to slow down multiple times.

“Try to take breaths between sentences,” Herman joked.

After Childers was excused, he walked away from the stand, waved to the jury and said, “Good luck.”

Testimony in the case continues Friday in Herman’s courtroom in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

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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