Beleaguered and now-highly scrutinized Santa Barbara County petroleum company Greka Oil and Gas announced on Friday, February 1, that it may terminate a portion of its workforce as a result of what a statement from the company called “selective enforcement: including stop work orders affecting 95 perfect of its production.” The statement from Greka continued that up around 100 workers would have been fired on Friday, but higher-ups allegedly postponed the action “in hope that the County’s regulators will lift the onerous stop work orders so employees can go back to work.” Then, in a follow-up statement, Greka also countered threats of financial penalties of up to $32,000 a day that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the company would incur if it doesn’t conform to the agency’s liking.
The first statement quoted Greka president Andrew deVegvar, who said that his company would continue to improve its facilities but would also seek legal options to “protect its employees and facilities from unfair discrimination.” The efforts in question fall under the “Greka Green” initiative. Announced January 29, the movement would purportedly help Greka facilities to function more in line with County environmental standards. (It bears noting, however, than on January 31, the Independent reported that County officials claim that they’ve responded to 18 refractions just since January 15, the date of meeting at which the Board of Supervisors voted to explore ways to better monitor infractions by oil companies and how the County might be able to recoup the expense of cleaning up spills. )
“The County’s actions are a transparent attempt to close all of Greka’s facilities,” said deVegvar in the statement. “With this aggressive and selective inspection schedule, the County is circumventing the law and trying to shut down our facilities one by one: Greka has been unfairly singled out by the County for enforcement actions that are not being applied against other producers in similar situations.” For example, deVegvar noted, a January 23 spill of sulfolane by a Popco facility was “minimized” in the press release issued by County Fire spokesman Eli Iskow. (The statement did specify that the spilled chemical substance had “a low health toxicity level as well as a low flammability level” and was appended by the following note: “Please stress in the story that Popco / Exxon officials and plant workers have been very cooperative and helpful with the mitigation of possible hazards and the incident investigation.”)
Finally, the Greka statement touted the company’s virtues, which include that it has spent “tens of millions of dollars” on rehabilitating old equipment, that it has never been named on the annual list of major California spills that the Department of Fish & Game compiles, and that spills in December and January may be the result of sabotage and not company negligence. “The Company has stated publicly that the County should be pursuing the vandals who caused the damage, not penalizing hardworking Santa Maria families with their tactics,” the statement concluded.
The second statement noted that a press conference on Friday also featured Greka’s response to the EPA’s threats of fines. Whereas a statement from EPA Site Coordinator Robert Wise indicated that he had seen Greka employees covering spilled oil with dirt rather than cleaning it up, Greka Incident Coordinator Robert Tull said these allegations were not true. Tull’s quote from the press conference reads as follows: “Mr. Wise told me he didn’t actually witness employees covering up the oil, but relied on what the Coast Guard Strike Team had said: I went out to the site today with the Coast Guard and we got the misunderstanding straightened out. What they had told Mr. Wise was that we weren’t cleaning the rocks well enough. Of course, we will comply with whatever the EPA and the Coast Guard want us to do. All they have to do is tell us.”
NOTE: EPA representative Mary Simms contacted the Independent on March 5 with the following note, which clarified her organization’s perspective on the alleged improper cleaning efforts by Greka empoyees: “During the inspection, EPA/Coast Guard observers saw fresh dirt covering spilled oil. The fresh dirt did not appear to have been deposited randomly over the oil, and Greka’s employees had not left any flags or markers indicating that they intended to return to perform further cleanup activities. It may be that Greka employees had also failed to clean up rocks, but that was not the basis for Mr. Wise’s actions.”