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Plains All-American Pipeline Supervisor Testifies in Refugio Oil Spill Criminal Trial

Plains All-American Pipeline’s operations supervisor in Santa Barbara County happened to be in the Gaviota area for a drill the day of the Refugio Oil Spill, and the Santa Maria-based employee testified this week about her response to the May 19, 2015 spill.

The criminal trial against Plains, the responsible party for the 123,228-gallon crude oil spill from a ruptured pipeline, is in its second week.

The company faces felony and misdemeanor charges including discharging a pollutant into state waters, knowingly making a false or misleading oil spill report to the California Office of Emergency Services, failing to notify the National Response Center within one hour after confirmation of a pipeline release of oil, and violating the Fish and Game code by taking protected and migratory birds, and other animals (which died as a result of the spill).

Documents from Plains’ oil spill response plan shown in court Friday included notification information and a checklist for the first person to discover the spill.

Referencing a log of her phone calls that day, between 12:28 p.m. and 9:46 p.m., Kathy Randall, the operations supervisor, testified that she did not call the National Response Center, the Plains control center, or 9-1-1.

She did not call any government agencies until 2:45 p.m., according to the log, and  most of her calls before that were with Plains employees – including her supervisor, her supervisor’s supervisor, and Kern County-based James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist who was individually charged in the criminal case for failing to immediately notify authorities after confirming the spill and the source of the spill.

The charge against Buchanan was dropped before trial, and prosecutors said they intend to subpoena him as a witness.

Randall also called Clean Seas, a contractor for clean-up, to request a response, according to the call log.

By 12:50 p.m. that day, Santa Barbara County Fire Department personnel had found the source of the spill and notified the county Office of Emergency Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California Office of Emergency Services, according to previous trial testimony. 

Ariel Neuman, one of Plains’ defense attorneys, asked Randall if she had followed the company’s oil spill response plan, “even though you didn’t have it with you that day,” and Randall said yes.

Neuman questioned her about whether the plan required her, specifically, to call the National Response Center, and she said someone was required to notify the NRC.

She said she had not called 9-1-1 because, “The fire department was on site,” she said.

Brett Morris, a deputy attorney general with the state of California, asked if, while she was at the spill site, not calling 9-1-1, she had seen the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, the Public Health Department, or the county hazmat team respond.

She said no, to them all.

Randall said she was the most senior employee in the county for Plains, and was in charge of the emergency until she was formally relieved.

She testified that she stayed at the scene of the pipeline rupture until about 4:30 p.m., then went to the incident command post at Refugio State Beach and gave a briefing.

Documents shown in court indicated that her briefing information included the fact that the 24-inch ruptured pipeline was an active line running up until 12:30 p.m.; there was an 11-mile section between a valve at ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon facility and a valve at the Gaviota substation (for Line 901); and there were two Clean Seas boats in the ocean deploying boom at that point.

Randall said that in the days and weeks following the spill, she was assigned to the logistics team to order equipment and organize food, water, hotels and restrooms for responders and clean-up workers.

Previously during the trial, county firefighters said they discovered the oil slick in the ocean after responding to a 9-1-1 call in the area about the smell of natural gas, and notified the people gathered at County Fire Station 18 – coincidentally – for an oil spill response drill, which included Plains employees.

Firefighters followed the flow of crude oil from the bluffs “upstream” to the site of the ruptured Line 901 pipeline.

When they tracked the oil spill to its source, the pipeline that runs along the Gaviota Coast north of Highway 101, firefighters saw Randall and Mike Buttram, another Plains employee, standing nearby, talking on their phones, according to testimony.

County Fire Battalion Chief Chris Childers previously testified that upon discovering the spill, he told dispatch to notify the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and whoever else needed to be alerted.  

The criminal trial will continue in Judge James Herman’s Santa Barbara County Superior Court room next week.

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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