Things went from bad to worse for Greka Energy this past weekend, as yet another pump failure-this time at a storage tank in the Santa Ynez Valley-sent some 84,000 gallons of oil and the toxic byproduct known as produced water spewing into a creek at the Firestone Vineyard property on January 5. Made worse by the recent heavy rainfall, the spill, according to California Fish and Game, traveled more than a mile and a half downstream before being stopped by Greka workers and County Fire crews. The spill came less than 24 hours after a special meeting of county, state, and federal officials in Santa Barbara, hosted by State Assemblymember Pedro Nava, to discuss the recurring toxic spills since Greka came to town in 1999. According to county and state data, the most recent incident brings the total number of Greka spills in the past nine years to 204, including approximately 100,000 gallons of oil spilled into creeks in the past month alone. Furthermore, amid allegations of widespread disrepair and high environmental risk, Greka’s Rincon Island facility just offshore the Santa Barbara/Ventura county line was issued a stop work order by the state’s Land Commission on January 3.
With a history of infractions-including a massive December 7 spill at a storage facility near Santa Maria that was recently estimated by California Fish and Game officials to have put 58,674 gallons, or 1,397 barrels, of crude oil in a tributary of the Sisquoc River-representatives from County Fire, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Fish and Game, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Conservation gathered on January 4 at the Santa Barbara City Planning building to compare notes on their respective Greka dealings. Representatives painted a grim picture of the Greka track record, telling tales of broken-down machinery, twigs wrapped in socks used to stuff holes in holding tanks, felony criminal litigation, and well over a million dollars’ worth of fines. Steve Edinger, the chief of enforcement for Fish and Game, called the sheer volume of documented spills “extraordinary and well outside the norm” compared to the rest of state, adding, “Often, we would go out on one Greka event and find out another event is going on, too. : It’s good business practice to not spill, and other operators seem to get this message.” For the county’s part, Air Pollution Control District Director Terry Dressler called Greka “the most challenging source we regulate.” County Fire’s Tom Franklin, holding up a thick folder of violation paper work, said that of the 20 onshore oil operators in the county, “It is Greka that takes up our time and resources.”
An international corporation owned by Randeep Grewal, Greka Energy formed in 1999 and began acquiring old oil leases throughout the county to complement its asphalt empire. The company employs more than 200 people at 67 facilities and 11 stations in the county, a majority in and around Santa Maria. Many violations have resulted from older, often rusted-out equipment failing. Such was the case in early December when a pump malfunctioned, causing oil to overflow; then, the warning alarm subsequently failed to notify employees, allowing the crude to flow for almost four hours until the spill was reported via a 911 call. Similarly, it was yet another pump failure and alarm snafu that caused the recent Firestone Vineyard spill.
Speaking on behalf of Greka and Grewal at the hearing, attorney Bob Sanger said, “This is in large part an acquired liability and Mr. Grewal has invested tens of millions of dollars for capital improvements throughout these facilities. They have made tremendous improvements and are making sincere, very sincere, efforts to prevent additional incidents.” Defending the December spill, Sanger explained that a plan to replace the old facility had been held up in the county permitting process for more than a year prior to the malfunction and that it was granted a matter of days after the December 7 spill. Greka spokesperson Mike Stoker is looking forward to an upcoming County Supervisors hearing on the subject in which a former FBI investigator, employed by Greka, will explain the “unusual and suspicious” circumstances surrounding the spill at Firestone Vineyard. Explaining that the failed injection pump, which caused the spill, had been recently replaced, Stoker said there is reason to believe that “someone purposely caused the spill to happen.” Furthermore, Stoker added that even with the pump failure, had the alarm company acted properly, the spill would have been averted.
Next up for Greka is the Santa Barbara County Supervisors’ hearing on January 15, when staff and boardmembers will tackle the matter from their county standpoint. However, with the accident during the weekend on his property, 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said this week that he will be forced to recuse himself from the discussion due to a conflict of interest stemming from his lease of land to Greka. (Incidentally, this same conflict of interest did not prevent Firestone from playing a major role in voting against holding an emergency county hearing about Greka in mid December immediately following the December 7 spill.) Though shying from commenting directly on the vineyard spill, Firestone, when asked if this was the first time the Greka lease on his land had faltered, laughed out loud. “Oh, no. There have been quite a few over the years,” Firestone said.