Environment & Science

Plains All American indicted for Santa Barbara oil spill

Workers clean oil from the rocks and beach near Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 22, 2015. The oil company behind a crude spill on the California coast, Plains All American Pipeline, said Tuesday it had been indicted on 46 counts related to the spill.
Workers clean oil from the rocks and beach near Refugio State Beach in Goleta, California, May 22, 2015. The oil company behind a crude spill on the California coast, Plains All American Pipeline, said Tuesday it had been indicted on 46 counts related to the spill.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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Plains All American Pipeline LP, the company responsible for spilling more than 100,000 gallons of oil near a beach in Santa Barbara County last year, has been indicted by a California grand jury along with one of its employees, the attorney general's office said Tuesday.

The company faces 46 criminal charges related to the spill, including four felony counts related to the release of hazardous substances into the ocean. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $2.8 million, according to Attorney General Kamala Harris's office. 

The employee, identified as James Buchanan, was charged with misdemeanor violations for failing to report the spill to the Office of Emergency Services in a timely manner, according to a statement from Harris's office.

Most of the other charges were misdemeanors related to the spill's impact on wildlife.

"Crimes against our environment must be met with swift action and accountability," said Harris in the statement. "The carelessness of Plains All-American harmed hundreds of species and marine life off Refugio Beach. This conduct is criminal and today's charges serve as a powerful reminder of the consequences that flow from jeopardizing the well-being of our ecosystems and public health."

Authorities have estimated that between 100,000 and 140,000 gallons of crude oil were released near Refugio State Beach in May 2015. About a fifth of that oil is estimated to have reached the ocean.

The months-long cleanup that followed cost state and local governments millions of dollars, the attorney general's office said.

In a statement, Plains All American said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision of the attorney general and Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley to pursue charges.

"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," the company said. "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."

The company said it regretted the incident and the impact it had on the community, environment and wildlife. It said it had responded to the spill by working with authorities to help remove the oil and clean the affected water, soil and shoreline.

The company said it plans "to share key findings from this accident with other pipeline operators to improve practices industry-wide and help prevent similar incidents in the future."

The May 19, 2015, spill near Goleta is estimated to have caused nearly $143 million in damage, according to Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data.

The pipe that ruptured was moving heavy crude oil for Exxon Mobil from an offshore platform to refineries in Kern County. Since the spill three offshore oil platforms that used the pipeline have shut down production, and the pipeline itself was purged and taken out of use. Other offshore platforms that use other pipelines continue to function.

The Goleta spill was the worst of the 30 incidents Plains had across the country in 2015. It accounted for about 95 percent of the more than $150 million in property damage those incidents caused, according to the PHMSA data.

In California, Plains operates 480 miles of pipeline. A section of its pipeline malfunctioned in the Atwater neighborhood of Los Angeles in May 2014, flooding streets near the Los Angeles River with 10,000 gallons of crude oil. The spill damaged nearby businesses and injured some workers.

The company has had 16 hazardous liquid incidents in California between 2006 and the end of 2015. Ten of those came in 2014 and 2015, according to PHMSA.

Across the U.S., Plains operates 6,430 miles of pipeline. Between 2006 and 2016 the pipeline safety agency has recorded 205 incidents, 144 inspections and 26 enforcement actions, according to the data.

Kira Redmond, executive director Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, said the indictment sends a message to the region's oil and gas operators to improve their operations.
 
"Irresponsible behavior and negligence won't be tolerated, and they're going to be held responsible," said Redmond, who added that the company's being held to account was good news for the community.
 
The Santa Barbara Channelkeeper group is part of a statewide alliance of local environmental advocacy groups that monitor the ocean, rivers and lakes.
 
In the year since the pipeline failed due to corrosion, the legislature passed a bill (SB 295) requiring annual oil pipeline inspections by the state Fire Marshal. Previously the inspections were required every two or more years. Another new law (SB 414) focuses on making oil spill responses faster and more effective.
A bill that would have barred the State Lands Commission from leasing offshore land for oil or gas production did not pass.
 
The spill hastened the previously stalled progress of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in releasing proposed new rules, Redmond said. Those rules are now open to public comment, and could be moving toward approval soon, she said.
 
The spill has stalled some oil production in the Santa Barbara area. Three oil platforms in Santa Barbara Channel were connected to the ruptured pipeline and have ceased production. The others continue to produce crude oil which is shipped on other pipelines to Southern California refineries, she said.
 
"What's coming out of this area is not even a drop in the bucket compared to what we consume here and where it all comes from," Redmond said.
 
In April, PHMSA's preliminary root cause investigation reported that external corrosion caused the leak and that Plains All-American did not take the necessary precautions to prevent the corrosion.
 
The pipe had been inspected for corrosion a few weeks before the leak and also in 2012 and 2007.

Property damage from Plains incidents in California since 2012

Year Property Damage
2012 $166,375
2013 $38,060
2014 $3,212,401
2015 $143,296,132

Source: Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data

This story has been updated.