Pipeline com­pany fined over $3 mil­lion for Refugio oil spill

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY MONICA VAUGHAN

A Texas oil pipeline com­pany was sen­tenced Thurs­day for crimes it com­mit­ted re­lated to a 2015 oil spill that coated Refugio State Beach in Santa Bar­bara County and killed hun­dreds of birds and ma­rine mam­mals.

Plains All Amer­i­can said in a state­ment to The Tribune that it was or­dered to pay $3.35 mil­lion for nine criminal counts re­lated to the Refugio oil spill off the Santa Bar­bara coast, a punishment that the $17 bil­lion com­pany said wouldn’t hurt its bot­tom line and that en­vi­ron­men­tal groups crit­i­cized as too light.

It was handed down by Santa Bar­bara Su­pe­rior Court Judge James Herman.

“Plains’ criminal neg­li­gence de­served a tougher sen­tence, but even more important is that the com­pany doesn’t de­serve an­other chance to spill again,” said Blake Kop­cho with the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Diversity.

His or­ga­ni­za­tion is fight­ing the com­pany’s at­tempt to build a new pipeline to re­place the one that cor­roded and al­lowed thou­sands of gal­lons of crude oil to leak onto the shore and into the Pa­cific Ocean. The new pipeline would re­place the sec­tion that leaked, along with the rest of the 124 miles of pipe that run through Santa Bar­bara, San Luis Obispo and Kern coun­ties.

The oil spill near Refugio State Beach in May 2015 shut down the pipeline and as­so­ci­ated off­shore oil rigs, and trig­gered mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions that re­sulted in re­ports, a new law re­quir­ing safety up­dates to pipe­lines, and criminal charges.

The Cal­i­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice and Santa Bar­bara County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in­ves­ti­gated the in­ci­dent. As a re­sult of their find­ings, Plains and one em­ployee were in­dicted by a state grand jury on a to­tal of 46 criminal counts. Most of the charges against the com­pany and all of

those against an em­ployee were dis­missed. The com­pany went to trial in May 2018 on 15 charges.

A jury in Septem­ber 2018 found Plains guilty of one felony count for dis­charg­ing crude oil into state wa­ters and eight mis­de­meanors for fail­ure to re­port the spill and caus­ing the deaths of sea li­ons and brown pel­i­cans.

Af­ter the ver­dict, Plains told investors in its 2018 an­nual re­port that “we do not an­tic­i­pate that the fines or penal­ties im­posed as a re­sult of the jury’s de­ci­sion will have a ma­te­rial ad­verse im­pact on the fi­nan­cial po­si­tion or operations of the (com­pany).”

Plains All Amer­i­can has pub­licly apol­o­gized for the spill, which the com­pany es­ti­mates leaked 2,934 bar­rels of crude oil, of which 598 reached the ocean.

“We take our re­spon­si­bil­ity to safely de­liver en­ergy re­sources very se­ri­ously, and we are com­mit­ted to do­ing the right thing. We are sorry that this re­lease hap­pened, and we have and will con­tinue to work hard to re-earn the trust of area res­i­dents,” Brad Leone, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions, said in a pre­pared state­ment emailed to The Tribune.

‘TREMEN­DOUS DAM­AGE’ TO CAL­I­FOR­NIA COAST

Dur­ing the sen­tenc­ing hearing, the judge heard from vic­tims of the com­pany’s crimes, in­clud­ing neigh­bors, fish­er­men and work­ers.

Linda Krop, an at­tor­ney with the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Cen­ter, tes­ti­fied in the criminal sen­tenc­ing hearing on be­half of en­vi­ron­ment in­ter­ests. She pro­vided a copy of her testimony to The Tribune.

It reads, in part, “The Plains oil spill caused tremen­dous dam­age to much of the Cal­i­for­nia coast, spread­ing all the way from Refugio State Beach Park to beaches more than 150 miles away in Or­ange County. The spill killed hun­dreds of ma­rine mam­mals, fish, birds, and other wildlife, and de­stroyed sen­si­tive habi­tats both on­shore and off­shore.”

She said the spill had a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and that sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tions found that the re­sponse and cleanup ac­tions were in­ad­e­quate.

“We will never know the full ex­tent of the dam­age be­cause it is im­pos­si­ble to clean up an off­shore oil spill. What we do know is that the ef­fects will be long-last­ing and will never be fully mit­i­gated,” Krop said.

The spill has cost the com­pany far more than Thurs­day’s fine. It was es­ti­mated that Plains had spent at least $150 mil­lion on cleanup by 2016, ac­cord­ing to re­port­ing by Reuters.

Mul­ti­ple claims and law­suits were filed against the com­pany af­ter the spill, and more may be com­ing, ac­cord­ing to public com­pany doc­u­ments.

LARA COOPER Noozhawk.com

Two men res­cue an oil-soaked sea bird at Refugio State Beach af­ter the rup­ture of the nearby Plains All Amer­i­can pipeline spilled oil in May 2015. The com­pany es­ti­mates 2,934 bar­rels of crude oil leaked, of which 598 reached the Pa­cific Ocean.

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