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Texas pipeline company and employee indicted for 2015 California oil spill

18 May 2016

Plains All American Pipeline has been indicted in California on 46 criminal charges stemming from a major oil spill last year that forced beach closures and fouled miles of shoreline near Santa Barbara, prosecutors said on May 17. Four of the charges are felonies, including knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, county District Attorney Joyce Dudley told a news conference.

Stock image
Stock image

The bulk of the remaining 42 misdemeanor counts contained in the indictment relate to wildlife losses blamed on the May 19, 2015, rupture of an oil pipeline near Refugio Beach that federal inspectors found was badly worn by corrosion. The latest tally of wildlife deaths linked to the spill includes 221 seabirds and 138 marine mammals, principally California sea lions.

Both the Houston-based company and one of its employees, James Buchanan, 41, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist, were charged with misdemeanor violations of failing to provide timely notice of the spill to authorities.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris said the company, if convicted, faces penalties of $1 million to $2.8 million. Buchanan could face up to three years in prison if found guilty.

The company denied any wrongdoing and said it would contest the charges. It said it had spent more than $150 million on spill response, cleanup and related efforts.

"Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident," it said. “Criminal charges are unwarranted. We will vigorously defend ourselves.”

Federal authorities reported that up to 2,500 barrels of crude (420,000 litres) was released when Plains' underground pipeline, Line 901, burst along a coastal highway about 20 miles (32 km) west of Santa Barbara. The company later revised its upper estimate of the spill to 3,400 barrels.

Plains All American has been fined $48 million in 28 separate complaints filed by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010, but this may be the first time the pipeline company — one of the largest operators in the country — has faced criminal charges.

Experts said the spill was the worst in the area since a 1969 spill dumped up to 100,000 barrels in the Santa Barbara Channel.

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