Har­ris weigh­ing pos­si­ble crim­i­nal charges in oil spill

On a tour of beach cleanup, at­tor­ney gen­eral says fo­cus is on pipe­line op­er­a­tors.

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Michael Fin­negan michael.fin­negan@la­times.com

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.

Al Seib

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.

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