The Plains All American Pipeline has been indicted on 46 criminal counts in California, including four felony charges of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, as a 41-year-old company employee who worked as an environmental and pipeline regulatory compliance specialist faces three charges.
The company operated a pipeline that that ruptured last year near Santa Barbara, sending up to 143,000 gallons of crude oil flowing into the coast, and could face fines of nearly $3 million, Reuters reports. The action by state and local prosecutors comes amid revelations of what critics considered a slow response by the company in identifying the pipeline leak and notifying authorities.
As the Houston-based company that owns the 10.6-mile Plains All American Pipeline has been indicted, some of the oil from the rupture last May sent crude oil onto Refugio State Beach. Some of the oil got into the Pacific Ocean, and tar balls from the pipeline leak were found as far away as Manhattan Beach.
At the time, experts described the pipeline spill as moderate in size but cautioned that it could have a dramatic effect on a region visited by rare seabirds, migrating whales, sea lions and dolphins. During the cleanup, which involved scientists, government officials and industrial crews, fish and marine animals were found cloaked in petroleum. At one point, a juvenile seal lion, its belly stained with oil, washed up on the beach and collapsed not far from the site of the pipeline break.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said the company had been uncooperative during the pipeline criminal investigation and that her office was “committed to putting all the resources that are necessary into seeing this case through.” “We value our pristine coastal communities, we value the precious wildlife and the oceans that we are proud to call a big part of California,” she said of the pipeline spill. “Anyone that violates the law … is going to be held accountable,” EHS Today reported.
In a statement released Tuesday, Plains All American Pipeline said it “sincerely regrets” the leak and its effect on the community. “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,” it said of the pipeline disaster.
The company - which reported $43 billion in revenue and $878 million in profit the year before the leak - called the charges “unwarranted” and “an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident.” It has spent more than $150 million on the response effort, cleanup and related matters, the statement said. According to federal records, the subsidiary responsible for the burst pipeline has a history of safety and maintenance infractions.
Since 2006, Plains Pipeline’s rate of incidents per mile of pipe is more than three times the national average, data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last year showed. The company’s 175 violations involved pipeline corrosion, operator error, pump failure and equipment malfunction. The incidents caused more than $23 million in property damage and spilled more than 688,000 gallons of hazardous liquid, according to federal records. Only four companies in a database of more than 1,700 pipeline operators reported more infractions.
Plains Pipeline transports and stores crude oil and is part of Plains All American Pipeline, which owns and operates nearly 18,000 miles of pipe networks in several states. After the pipeline rupture, it was learned that operators had shut down what is known as Line 901 at 11:30 a.m. on May 19 after seeing “abnormalities.”
According to a timeline released by company officials, workers near Refugio State Beach didn’t know about the pipeline leak until they received reports of oil in the water from state parks staff about noon. Initially, company employees struggled to spot oil leaking from the underground pipeline.
By 1:30 p.m., they realized oil from the pipeline was reaching the ocean via a storm culvert near where the corroded pipe had broken. Company officials in Bakersfield, who were responsible for alerting federal regulators about the broken pipeline, were unable to contact employees near the breach.
In a letter to lawmakers, the company said workers in the field were “busy dealing with the immediate demands and distractions.” Federal regulators were not alerted until nearly 3 p.m.
In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed three bills overhauling pipeline laws, aiming to improve prevention efforts and response to future spills. While Plains All American Pipeline was indicted, federal regulators has ordered the company to empty crude oil from a 115-mile pipeline with similar corrosion issues, fearing another spill.
The charges against the company are under seal, but prosecutors said the company and its employee James Buchanan failed to provide timely notice of the leak. Other misdemeanor charges involved the effect on birds and mammals.
The Daily Croton said that UC Davis’ Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which was involved in recovery efforts, reported 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the spill. Area residents too were affected and that was mentioned before Plains All American Pipeline was indicted.