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Pipeline Company Indicted Over 2015 California Oil Spill

A worker removes oil at California's Refugio State Beach on May 21, 2015.
Jae C. Hong
A worker removes oil at California's Refugio State Beach on May 21, 2015.

Plains All American Pipeline company is facing criminal charges after one of its pipelines ruptured last year, spilling about 140,000 gallons of crude oil that fouled miles of California coastline near Santa Barbara.

A California grand jury indicted the company and one of its employees on 46 criminal counts. Four are felony charges — including one charge of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said at a Tuesday news conference.

She identified the Plains All American Pipeline employee who was charged as environmental and regulatory compliance specialist James Buchanan. Dudley said Buchanan, 41, was not named in any of the four felony charges and could face a maximum of three years in county jail.

The Houston-based company is likely facing fines of "over $1 million," Dudley said, adding that Plains was "not cooperative" with the investigation.

Of the 46 counts, 10 were related to the actual spill or reporting of the spill and 36 involved harm to wildlife. The Associated Press has reported that nine dolphins, 36 sea lions and 87 birds in the area died as a result of the oil spill, and that an additional six elephant seals, 32 sea lions and 58 birds were rescued.

Dudley said she could not comment on the specifics of the individual charges because the indictment has not been publicly released.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris said at a news conference Tuesday that the indictment is "the first step to holding Plains accountable."

"This case should serve as a stark reminder that any company that is operating in our state and transporting crude oil and doing it in a way that is irresponsible and in violation of the law will be held accountable," she said.

The company said in a statement that it deeply regrets the "accidental release" of oil but maintains that it did not do anything criminal. The statement read in part:

"Plains 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."

As the Two-Way has reported, more than 140,000 gallons of oil poured out of a 2-foot hole in a ruptured pipe and into the ocean off California's coast near Refugio State Beach on May 19, 2015. The beach had to be evacuated and wasn't reopened until more than two months after the spill.

According to the initial investigation by the Pipeline And Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, preliminary findings indicated that "the pipeline was 'experiencing active external corrosion' and that metal loss amounted to 45 percent of the pipeline wall where the pipe broke," the Two-Way reported.

Plains said in the statement that it had cooperated with federal regulators and had "expended more than $150 million on the response effort." The pipeline operator also said it is committed to preventing similar accidents in the future.

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