It was a day of dej vu for the Santa Barbara County supervisors as the board kicked off 2009 much as they did 2008: dealing with the frequent and flagrant oil-spilling ways of Greka Energy. After the new officials were formally sworn in Tuesday morning, the freshly minted five-member board heard a report from County Fire officials about a series of four spills at North County Greka facilities that occurred during the Christmas holiday and which collectively leaked more than 12,000 gallons of crude oil and produced water.
This week’s meeting came roughly a year after two Greka-inspired hearings-one hosted in Santa Barbara by State Assemblymember Pedro Nava early last January and the other by the supervisors themselves a week later-in the wake of several December 2007 Greka mishaps, including one at the very same Bell Lease, just off Palmer Road south of Santa Maria, that was the site of three of the recent incidents.
The most recent round of trouble, according to County Fire’s Chris Hahn, started on Christmas Eve at a facility on Graciosa Road after a valve was mistakenly left open and 336 gallons of crude and produced water-the latter of which is an often toxic byproduct of oil drilling -spilled out into a containment structure. Next up was the December 26 spill off Palmer Road that spewed 2,600 gallons of crude and produced water onto the roadway. This incident was caused by the bursting of a corroded underground pipe in the area that eventually flowed up and out onto the street via a nearby vent.
The third spill was discovered on December 27 by County Fire officials visiting the site of the previous spill. Apparently, in looking to stop the flow of the earlier mishap, a Greka employee shut off the wrong valve, causing unwanted pressure buildup and the eventual explosion of an adjoining pipe. Before the error could be remedied, more than 9,200 gallons of oil and water spilled into a dry creek bed that serves as a seasonal tributary to the Sisquoc River. A final snafu was discovered on December 28, also at the Palmer Road lease, when a wellhead spilled 210 gallons and prompted county officials to issue a stop-work order for the facility, which they shut down under similar circumstances less than a year ago.
Greka president Andrew deVegvar defended his company, chalking the incidents up to little more than “operator error” and calling the reported spill amounts “totally wrong” due to a calculating method by California Fish and Game that also measures impacted soil amounts. Explaining that he too is “fed up with the mistakes,” deVegvar reported that the operator responsible has since been fired and the manager of the Bell Lease has been transferred. “There has been no real harm to health and safety here and there has been no harm to the environment either,” deVegvar said.
Unfortunately for Greka, most members of the public are less inclined to consider the company’s spills benign. After grabbing national headlines last year for its less-than-spectacular track record, Greka, which is the largest onshore oil operator in Santa Barbara County, spurred an overhaul of the way in which the county regulates and punishes such entities as well as the way in which that information is shared within the county’s regulatory agencies.
That process is still a work in progress, though the efforts underway for much of 2008 were largely praised by the supervisors on Tuesday. County staff is slated to update the supes about onshore oil activity on January 13-on which date the supes will enact a repeat offender ordinance aimed at curbing the behavior of chronic spillers.
However, in a point of attack led by 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and echoed by the 1st District’s Salud Carbajal, the new incarnation of the board, with the 3rd District’s Brooks Firestone’s seat now occupied by Doreen Farr, seemed more committed this week to cracking down on operators who make a habit of spilling. For several months, supervisors and county staffers have been forced to choose their words wisely when it comes to Greka for fear of an already threatened lawsuit from the energy company. And while that practice was still in place this week, a clearly frustrated Wolf showed the first signs of going on the offensive on Tuesday when-after using an analogy of a family with five kids, one of whom repeatedly runs into trouble, to describe the onshore oil-operator landscape-he told staff, “I know we are trying to be proactive with all of the ongoing inspections, but I am feeling a disconnect. : At some point we have to take action.”