Harris weighing possible criminal charges in oil spill
On a tour of beach cleanup, attorney general says focus is on pipeline operators.
REFUGIO STATE BEACH, Calif. — State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Thursday that her office was weighing potential criminal charges against operators of the pipeline that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil along the Santa Barbara County coastline last month.
“We’re going to go where the evidence takes us,” Harris said after touring the sprawling cleanup operation on the rustic coast just north of Santa Barbara.
She said she was troubled by a federal regulators’ report Wednesday that corrosion had eaten away much of the metal wall of the ruptured pipeline.
“Certainly, it’s something that we’re taking very seriously,” Harris, standing under a palm tree, told reporters as waves crashed behind her.
Harris’ office is conducting criminal and civil investigations of the oil spill and its aftermath. She visited the cleanup command center Thursday, meeting with officials from more than a dozen federal, state and local government agencies.
Harris said she also met with a man who works for Plains All American Pipeline, which owns the pipeline.
“We had a brief conversation, but I can’t draw any conclusions about their role from that conversation,” she said. “But our investigation is obviously looking at their role and their responsibility.”
Plains All American spokeswoman Meredith Matthews said the company “remains focused on the recovery and is working with federal, state and local agen- cies to make things right.”
“We respect the attorney general’s role in this matter,” she said, “and we will cooperate with her office as necessary in connection with the investigation.”
The state attorney general’s office is conducting a joint criminal investigation with the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office. Harris’ office is also working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on a potential civil lawsuit involving the cleanup of environmental damage, a spokeswoman said.
On May 19, about 21,000 gallons of crude oil spilled down a culvert and into the Pacific Ocean near the beach that Harris visited Thursday. The rest of the oil stayed on land.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released preliminary findings on the spill Wednesday. Inspectors found metal loss of more than 45% of the pipe wall’s thickness in the area of the break, the agency reported.
Harris’ tightly choreographed visit came as she runs for U.S. Senate and had all the trappings of a campaign event.
For decades, candidates have used Santa Barbara County’s scenic coastline as a backdrop to highlight their dedication to protecting California’s environment.
Harris’ aides barred the media from most of her tour, allowing her to be photographed only from a roped-in area at Refugio State Beach, with the turquoise ocean behind her.
The visit was the latest of many displays of how Harris’ state duties dovetail with her political needs for the June 2016 Senate primary.
Her state office gives her a platform to promote issues that can advance her campaign, from cracking down on Internet sex predators to protecting the coastline from pollution.
STATE ATTY. GEN. Kamala Harris is briefed by Tyson Butzke, right, a superintendent with California State Parks, and Tom Cullen, left, with the office of oil spill prevention and response, at Refugio State Beach.