Fallout from the Atomic Dog

SOMETHING PISSY THIS WAY COMES: Greka Oil has done it again. And again and again and again. At a time when oil companies like Chevron and BP are spending many millions to greenwash us into believing they can be environmentally caring and sharing, it’s good to have down-and-dirty operators like Greka keeping it real. Real messy, that is. Last Saturday, at its old and moldy Santa Maria facilities, one of its holding tanks spewed about 800 barrels of crude into a nearby creek. That translates into about 33,000 gallons of oil, which makes it roughly half the size of the spill that wreaked such havoc last month on the San Francisco Bay. A pump that didn’t work caused an oil storage tank to back up and overflow. Making matters worse, the alarms installed for just that failed. If this were Greka’s first foray into industrial incontinence, we could write it off as another case of “accidents will happen.” But at Greka, you can bet the farm that what can go wrong will go wrong-and more than once and often simultaneously. Greka’s corporate policy is one of self-inflicted industrial sabotage and has been since the company began operating in Santa Barbara County nine years ago.

Angry Poodle Barbecue

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf responded to the news of Greka’s latest disaster by trying to get the issue onto the supervisors’ agenda on Tuesday, as what’s known in the murky world of political bureaucracies as an “ex-agenda item.” Wolf failed to get the votes she needed for this maneuver, but only after a decidedly pissy discussion, in which 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone all but accused the media of inducing mass hysteria by suggesting that the Greka spill was “huge.” Even so, Wolf managed to score one very damning point that could easily get lost in the shuffle. Based on oral reports delivered by county fire officials, Wolf managed to ascertain that Greka officials had been notified of the spill as of 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. Yet somehow, these same officials never managed to get around to flicking off the switch to the faulty oil pump that caused the spill until 11:30 a.m. By my rudimentary calculations, that’s a four-hour delay. One can only wonder what they were doing in all that intervening time. If nothing else, these missing four hours call into question all the vehement protestations of corporate sincerity uttered by Greka spokesperson-and former county supervisor-Mike Stoker in his gyrations of post-spill spin. By taking the Greka gig, Stoker-who also happens to work as a staff person for ¼ber-conservative State Senator Tom McClintock-is clearly committing political suicide. And while Supervisor Wolf might be more than a little incensed at her procedural defeat, the broader point was amply made by all the supervisors present. Sometime this coming January, they will make Greka the subject of a full-fledged investigative weenie roast likely to run several hours long. And what they find, I guarantee, will be rank indeed.

And for good reason. From the get-go, Greka has distinguished itself as a rogue operation, strategically impervious to the county’s regulatory charms. While other oil companies have striven to project a tidy-whitey image, Greka has been content to be the proverbial skunk-at-the-garden-party and turd-in-the-punchbowl combined. The Air Pollution Control District (APCD) reports that Greka has had more than 250 operational and safety violations during the past eight years, with fines in excess of $500,000. No other company commands nearly as much APCD staff time as Greka. In addition, there have been two criminal cases filed by the District Attorney’s office against Greka, resulting in settlements of $200,000 and $675,000. When asked whether Greka was the oil industry’s version of Santa Barbara’s convicted slumlord Dario Pini, one high-ranking county official who has dealt with Greka throughout the years quipped the comparison seemed unfair to Pini. “At least Dario’s buildings are still standing,” he said.

When Greka moved to town, it bought out a passel of aging and ailing oil facilities in North County being abandoned by the larger, more established companies that had run them since the late 1930s. Greka was one of many newer companies that moved in seeking to get the last few sucks off Santa Barbara’s oil straw, making it the petrochemical equivalent of debauched drunks who seek out partially consumed beer bottles at parties to chug the last few sips. In Greka’s case, the plan was to create a vertically integrated asphalt empire, buying not just the asphalt production facility but the oil wells that produce the sticky, high-sulfur crude necessary to make high-grade asphalt.

Greka executive Randeep Grewal was as slick as they come, promising everything county regulators wanted. But trouble started almost immediately, and Grewal became even harder to talk to than Beanie Baby mogul Ty Warner or News-Press executrix Wendy McCaw. There were warnings beforehand that Greka lacked the deep pockets or the commitment needed to run its dilapidated oil facilities in a safe fashion. Although the supervisors eventually enacted an ordinance requiring county approval before such oil facilities could change hands, Greka got in under the wire. If nothing else, its chronic and flagrant safety problems give the lie to the accusation that Santa Barbara’s regulatory bureaucracy is unduly burdensome. In Greka’s case, it wasn’t nearly burdensome enough. Nor was Greka ever assigned to the one county agency with the expertise and teeth to get the job done-the Energy Division. Energy handles only offshore oil facilities; Greka is an onshore nightmare.

In the meantime, I’m happy the supervisors will be holding a necktie party for Greka early next year. I’d recommend they hold it the last Tuesday of the month. That’s January 29, which happens to be the 39th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s historic oil spill of 1969. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate. I’ll bring the dead birds.


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