Already facing class action lawsuits from Santa Barbara fishermen and beachfront business owners, Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline has now been sued by a group of South Coast residents for the May 19 Refugio Oil spill that released thousands of gallons of crude into the ocean and onto their properties.
Attorney Barry Cappello, representing Alexandra Geremia and other homeowners along Arroyo Quemada Lane just north of Refugio State Beach, filed the class action complaint in federal court on June 23. The lawsuit, which seeks many millions in damages, could wind up representing as many as 3,000 to 25,000 owners of oceanfront property between Point Conception and the southern border of San Diego County, Cappello states in the filing. He illustrated the scope of the fallout by pointing to Refugio-born tar balls that washed up in Los Angeles 100 miles away.
The beach behind Geremia’s Arroyo Quemada home was hit hard by the spill, Cappello said in an interview, and the blow to its property value was substantial. “It got massacred,” he said. Large tar balls remain scattered over the sand and rocks, Cappello went on, and cleanup efforts have been “insufficient.” Further, he declared, the fumes have been overwhelming, cleaning operations have been disruptive, and the whole incident rendered the once quiet and pristine neighborhood a real mess.
Cappello, who held the office of City Attorney when Santa Barbara successfully sued Union Oil following the 1969 blowout, faulted Plains for cutting corners and not installing an automatic shutoff system along its Gaviota Coast pipeline. He says it was the company’s legal responsibility to invest in such a safeguard, and the cost would have been a drop in the bucket considering Plains’s $18.8 billion market value. Cappello also cites the company’s checkered record of equipment failure and spills, and its allegedly sluggish response to last month’s rupture.
But as bad as May 19 was, Cappello explained Wednesday, it is the continuing threat of Line 901 that looms largest. “The real issue is not the damage to the property, but the threat of future spills,” he said. “[The pipeline] hangs like a Damocles sword over the entire South Coast.” In the lawsuit, Cappello details past safety issues with the pipeline, including poor welding and significant corrosion.
Because Plains has the reputation of a “serial violator, something needs to be done,” Cappello said, and the only way to hit the company where it hurts is to go after its wallet. “They need to get some real environmental religion,” he declared.
Earlier this month, a Santa Barbara urchin diver sued Plains on behalf of other local fishermen, whose fishing grounds remain closed. A hotel owner also filed a class action claim, alleging the spill did significant harm to Santa Barbara’s tourism industry.
A number of out-of-court claims have been filed against Plains as well. The exact count is unclear as authorities say that is part of their ongoing investigation. Plains is so far on the hook for $93 million in cleanup costs, they said.