Company charged in crude oil spill that fouled beaches
By Brian Melley, Associated Press, Updated May 18, 2016 2:01 pm
A Texas pipeline company responsible for spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil on the California coast last year was indicted on dozens of criminal charges in the disaster that closed popular beaches and killed sea lions and birds, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees face 46 counts of state law violations in the May 19, 2015, spill that initially went undetected until oil began pouring onto a pristine beach on the Santa Barbara coastline and into the ocean.
Initial investigations by federal regulators found the 2-foot-wide underground pipeline was severely corroded where it broke on land.
Plains is charged with four felony counts of spilling oil in state waters and could face fines of up to $2.8 million if convicted of all the charges, prosecutors said.
“The carelessness of Plains All American harmed hundreds of species and marine life off Refugio Beach,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement. “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.”
Plains said the spill was an accident and believes no criminal behavior occurred.
“We will demonstrate that the charges have no merit and represent an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident,” the company said.
The spill came two weeks before Memorial Day weekend last year and forced the state to close popular beaches as an oil sheen spread over miles of the Pacific Ocean. More than 300 dead animals, including pelicans and sea lions, were found in the aftermath, and tar balls from the spill drifted more than 100 miles away to Los Angeles beaches.
The Houston company faces three dozen misdemeanor counts of harming wildlife.
A Plains employee and the company also are accused of failing to report the spill quickly enough to state emergency officials. An investigation by federal regulators found that it took hours for Plains to recognize what happened and notify officials.
The Central Coast was thrust into the national spotlight in May as news broke of an oil pipeline rupture that allowed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean.
The ensuing damage devastated wildlife and our sensitive coastline, cost our local economy millions of dollars and put the health of Central Coast residents at risk. Sadly, this is just the most recent reminder of the hazards of drilling for and transporting fossil fuels.
In the months since the spill, I’ve redoubled my efforts to ensure federal agencies update and strengthen pipeline safety standards, prevent new offshore drilling and guarantee that our communities are properly compensated for their losses. And yet, just as the final traces of tar are cleaned from the rocks at Refugio Beach, another serious oil hazard looms on the Central Coast.
As many know, Phillips 66 has applied for a permit through San Luis Obispo County to construct a 1.3-mile rail spur to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. Construction of the new spur would allow the refinery to receive up to five deliveries of crude oil per week, with 2 million gallons aboard each mile-long freight train.
This rail spur proposal comes amidst booming North American oil production and a dramatic expansion across the country in the use of railroads to transport crude oil. Not surprisingly, the increased use of rail to transport oil over the last five years has correlated with a sharp increase in the number of derailments by oil-hauling trains. The increase in oil rail derailments is even more troubling considering the large investments made in recent years to improve rail safety.
The most devastating of these recent accidents occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in a downtown area and several cars exploded, killing 47 people and leveling half of the downtown area with a blast zone radius of more than half a mile.
Approving the Phillips 66 rail spur project would put communities throughout California at risk for a similar tragedy. If approved, communities within 1 mile of the rails would be within the potential blast radius of these crude oil freight trains as they make their way to their final destination in San Luis Obispo County. This is one of the many reasons why I am joining other community leaders, cities and counties throughout the state in opposing this project.
The Plains oil spill near Santa Barbara in May and the Phillips 66 rail spur project debate are both stark reminders of the dangers posed by our continued reliance upon oil and other fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.
We know that this dependence puts our environment, public health and economy at risk due to spills, derailments and the growing impacts of climate change.
With each extreme storm, severe wildfire and persistent drought, we’re reminded of the very real consequences of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.
The truth is that an economy that continues to rely upon fossil fuels is not prepared to succeed in the 21st century.
That is why I have spent my career in Congress advocating for efforts to transition to clean, renewable energy sources that produce the energy we need while also minimizing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
I am proud to say that the Central Coast is leading this transition. With our cuttingedge research universities, two of the largest solar fields in the world and some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and energy companies in the country, I am excited to see what the future holds.
Now, more than ever, we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to pivot away from our reliance on dirty fossil fuels and toward a more sustainable energy future.
That is why I am convening a panel of industry leaders and academic experts for a public forum at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center on Friday to discuss how we can continue to expand our clean-energy economy on the Central Coast and across the country.
During the forum, I look forward to discussing the multitude of threats posed by our continued fossil fuel dependence, the progress made toward developing renewable energy sources, and how we can overcome the remaining barriers to fully transition to a cleanenergy future. Please join us this Friday at 1 p.m. as we come together to build a safer, cleaner energy economy suitable to meet the demands of the 21st century.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — More than two months after oil from a ruptured pipeline fouled California beaches, documents released Wednesday disclosed that the spill might have been far larger than earlier projected.
Plains All American Pipeline had estimated that the May 19 break along a corroded section of pipe near Santa Barbara released up to 101,000 gallons of crude. The resulting mess forced a popular state park to shut down for two months, and goo from the spill washed up on beaches as far as 100 miles away.
In documents made public Wednesday, the Texas-based company said alternate calculations found the spill might have been up to 143,000 gallons, or about 40 percent larger.
The company is continuing its analysis, and the figures are preliminary. Plains All American has hired an outside consultant as part of the effort to reconcile the differences, the documents said.
At this point, the company considers the methodology used in its initial estimate to be “the most straight forward and accurate calculation.” However, it emphasized the estimate could change as the investigation continues.
In a statement, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, faulted the federal agency responsible for regulating the nation’s pipelines for the conflicting figures.
“The revelation that the Santa Barbara pipeline spill was much larger than originally thought underscores the importance of our pipeline safety agency providing complete information to Congress and the American people. Unfortunately, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s operational culture has been to withhold information from the American people and Congress,” he said.
The company has been criticized for taking about 90 minutes to alert federal responders after confirming the spill, even though federal regulations require the company to notify the National Response Center, a clearinghouse for reports of hazardous-material releases, “at the earliest practicable moment.” State law requires immediate notification of a release or a threatened release.
The cleanup is nearly complete, although the cause of the break is under investigation. The state attorney general and local prosecutors are considering possible charges, and the documents said the U.S. Justice Department is also investigating.
The company said it’s covering legal costs for several employees who could be questioned by the Justice Department.
No timeline has been set to restart the pipeline.
CEO Greg Armstrong told Wall Street analysts in a phone call that the company faced as much as $257 million in potential costs from the break, which includes estimates for cleanup operations, possible legal claims and fines.
At the end of June, the company said cleanup costs had hit $92 million.
Wildlife officials reported that nearly 200 birds and more than 100 marine mammals were found dead in the spill area. Investigators have not yet determined what, if any, role the spill played in those deaths.
Big oil slick off Santa Barbara County coast sparks new concerns
By Javier Panzar , Joseph Serna, Matt Hamilton, July 29, 2015 10:39pm
That greasy luster returned once again to the waters off Santa Barbara County.
An oil slick that stretched more than 3 miles was spotted Wednesday by some kayakers, about two months after a ruptured pipeline spilled more than 21,000 gallons of crude into the ocean off this picturesque coastline.
The sheen — no thicker than a coat of paint — did not prompt the closure of any beaches, and the U.S. Coast Guard said the oily substance would dissipate on its own.
As Coast Guard investigators awaited lab results that may pinpoint the oil’s source, images of a shiny patch of sea and splotches of tar along these pristine shores sent a quiver of anxiety through a community that’s still recovering from the May 19 spill.
“I just hoped it wasn’t another oil spill,” said Janine Dorn, a substitute teacher who brought her black poodle, Jack, to survey Goleta Beach before sunset. The oil spill in May had her fuming, she said. “Then I see this and it’s incredible. This can’t be happening again.”
Shortly before 11 a.m., the kayakers reported seeing the sheen about 1,000 feet off Goleta Beach, according to the county fire department. A black and brown gooey substance had coated the kayaks and the kayakers’ legs, according to photos from the fire department.
Initially described as measuring 60 feet wide, the sheen by Wednesday evening had stretched 3.5 miles long and half a mile wide, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Schmid said. As tides moved, the oil split into sections and covered only about one-third of the total area, he said.
The patch was seen floating near an oil platform owned by Venoco Inc., but the company denied that its platform was involved. That platform, known as Holly, was shut down in May, a company official said. Its pipeline was flushed of any oil and refilled with seawater.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, said the sheen could have been an ordinary, natural seepage. At Coal Oil Point, a seep field in the Santa Barbara Channel, thousands of gallons of oil flow into the ocean each day, something residents have grown accustomed to.
“The earth burps all the time,” said Robert Hernandez, an electrician who fishes nearly every day off the Goleta pier. “You smell it, you get a little on you. No big deal.”
Hernandez, 60, said he has been fishing along the Central Coast since he was 15. Sheens such as those spotted Wednesday are part of life in a region where the petroleum-rich sea bed regularly emits oil and natural gas, he said, which made him question why it was newsworthy. “It cracks me up,” he said. “At first I thought there was a shark attack or something.”
Yet environmental activist Rebecca Claassen, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said it’s too early to minimize the sheen as a natural occurrence, saying the oil platforms that dot the county’s coastline pose a daily risk. “We can see a spill any day as long as there is drilling off shore,” she said.
Federal officials said Wednesday’s sheen also could be a remnant of this spring’s spill, when the corroded pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline leaked an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude along the Gaviota coast and forced a weeks-long closure of Refugio State Beach.
The director of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Charlton Bonham, said Wednesday that the cleanup of the Refugio spill is ongoing, with about 14,000 gallons of oily water removed from the ocean.
Cleanup crews have responded to reports of tar balls as far away as Orange County, and one tar ball recovered in Manhattan Beach had the same oil “DNA” as the oil spilled at Refugio, he said.
Appearing in Sacramento before the state Ocean Protection Council, Bonham said the natural seepage in the area is challenging how his agency assesses the effectiveness of recovery efforts. “What is clean?” he told the panel. “How clean is clean?”
As federal and state investigators await the results of laboratory tests from Wednesday’s incident, Santa Barbara County’s director of public health, Dr. Takashi Wada, said there is no immediate risk to swimmers, and the county’s beaches and fishing piers remain open.
After swimming in the water off Goleta Beach with her friend, Anya Schmitz, 16, opined that the water was crystal clear — perfect for a summer dip.
“Conditions are great,” she said. “Seems like a lot of hype to me.”
Panzar reported from Goleta; Serna and Hamilton from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Phil Willon in Sacramento contributed to this report.