David McNew/Getty Images
A crew cleans oil from the beach at Refugio State Beach on May 20, 2015 north of Goleta, Calif. About 21,000 gallons spilled from an abandoned pipeline on the land near Refugio State Beach, spreading over four miles of beach within hours. The largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters at the time it occurred in the same section of the coast where numerous offshore oil platforms can be seen, giving birth to the modern American environmental movement.

Plains All-American Pipeline Indicted on Criminal Charges Resulting From Santa Barbara Oil Spill

May 18, 2016
Almost a year to the day of a May 19, 2015 oil spill, Plains All-American Pipeline has been indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury on 46 criminal charges.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley on May 17 announced that Plains All-American Pipeline has been indicted by a grand jury on 46 criminal charges related to the May 2015 oil spill in Santa Barbara County. A Plains All-American Pipeline employee also was indicted on three criminal charges.

Almost a year ago to the day, a pipeline operated by Plains All-American Pipeline ruptured on May 19, 2015, releasing approximately 140,000 gallons of heavy crude oil onto land, beaches and the Pacific Ocean near Refugio State Beach. Federal, state and local governments have spent millions of dollars to clean up the spill, which resulted in substantial damage to natural habitats and wildlife over a large area. 

Harris partnered with local and state law enforcement agencies to conduct a criminal investigation and jointly prosecute the criminal case with Dudley. 

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

On May 16, 2016, a grand jury indicted Plains All-American Pipeline on 46 charges, including four felony charges and 42 misdemeanor charges. The company was charged with felony violations of state laws regarding the spilling of oil and hazardous substances into state water. Both the company and James Buchanan, an employee, were charged with misdemeanor violations for failing to provide timely notice of the oil spill to the Office of Emergency Services. In addition, the company was indicted on three dozen misdemeanor charges linked to the spill’s impact on birds and mammals.

Plains responded to the indictment, saying it is “deeply disappointed by the decision of the California Attorney General and Santa Barbara District Attorney to pursue criminal charges against Plains and one of its employees in connection with the 2015 accident. 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. 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 says it “sincerely regrets the accidental Line 901 release and the resulting impact on the community, the environment and wildlife. Since the release, we have worked tirelessly and relentlessly to do the right thing and do it as quickly and effectively as possible by cleaning up the beaches and other affected areas, compensating those who were impacted by the release and working with the various governmental and other organizations responding to the incident.”

“This indictment came as a result of many local and state agencies working together to present both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence to a hard-working Santa Barbara Grand Jury,” said Dudley. “The indictment is a response to the evidence presented and speaks to the alleged criminal culpability of both the corporation and an individual who are alleged to have caused harm to Santa Barbara County’s magnificent natural surroundings and death to some of it’s majestic wildlife.”

Plains says that since the Line 901 release, the company has worked cooperatively with the U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, other members of the Unified Command, first responders and numerous local, state and federal stakeholders to make good on its commitment “to do the right thing.” According to the company, it has:

  • Worked cooperatively and effectively with the Unified Command and others to successfully remove and remediate released oil from the affected water, soil and shoreline, restoring the impacted beaches and achieving Unified Command sign-off regarding the completion of active clean-up efforts by August 31, 2015. All shoreline and beach clean-up goals were achieved by Jan. 22, 2016.
  • Worked diligently to achieve the re-opening of El Capitan State Beach on June 26, 2015, and Refugio State Beach on July 17, 2015.
  • Cooperated fully with the applicable trustees in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process to assist in quantifying injuries to natural resources and associated public uses resulting from the accident and identifying possible restoration projects.
  • Cooperated fully with all governmental regulators and agencies investigating the accident, including the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California State Attorney General and Santa Barbara County District Attorney.
  • Directly or indirectly expended more than $150 million on the response effort, cleanup and related matters.

“Plains remains committed to mitigating the impact of the Line 901 accident, taking appropriate and prudent steps to prevent future incidents, and working with the Unified Command, members of the community and other stakeholders to meet our commitments stemming from the accident. We also intend to share key findings from this accident with other pipeline operators to improve practices industry-wide and help prevent similar incidents in the future.,” said the company in a statement.

Plains All-American Pipeline faces up to $2.8 million in fines plus additional costs and penalties.

There is a precedent for the case in California: In 2011, Harris joined federal, state and local officials in securing a comprehensive settlement with the owners and operators of the M/V Cosco Busan over the major 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay.  

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