Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline LP and an employee were indicted by a California grand jury Monday on 46 total criminal counts for allegedly violating state laws in connection with an oil pipeline leak last year near Santa Barbara.
Attorney General Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley on Tuesday announced the charges, which include three against Plains employee James Buchanan. Ten of the charges relate to the crude oil release or reporting, while 36 charges concern wildlife violations after the pipeline leak, which Plains has said was an accident, fouled beaches along a stretch of Southern California's coastline (see Shale Daily, June 1, 2015).
Legislative and criminal investigations began last year after the company allegedly failed to report the leak in a timely manner as required by state law to the Office of Emergency Services (see Shale Daily, June 30, 2015). An oil pipeline safety law (SB 414) was enacted last year as a result (see Shale Daily, Sept. 14, 2015).
According to Harris and Dudley, the ruptured pipeline released close to 140,000 gallons of heavy crude oil onto land and beaches 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," a spokesperson for Harris said.
"Crimes against our environment must be met with swift action and accountability," said Harris, who claimed that Plains' actions were caused by "carelessness" that harmed hundreds of species and marine life. "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."
The May 2015 spill occurred when the Las Flores to Gaviota Pipeline, or Line 901, ruptured. Some of the oil that leaked reached the Pacific Ocean at Refugio State Beach through a drainage culvert. Plains shut down both Line 901 and nearby pipeline Line 903.
According to a worst case estimate by Plains, the spill may have leaked as much as 2,935 bbl. Plains has estimated that the total cost of the spill would be about $269 million, including cleanup and an estimate for fines and legal fees.
"Plains is deeply disappointed by the decision of the California attorney general and Santa Barbara district attorney to pursue criminal charges," a spokesperson said. "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."
Plains "sincerely regrets" the accidental release on Line 901 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...
"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."