Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley, joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, announce criminal charges being brought against the Plains All American Oil Company for the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.
Paul Wellman

Nothing says “Happy Anniversary” quite as startlingly as a 46-count criminal indictment, as Plains All-American Pipeline Company found out the hard way this week. At a joint Tuesday morning press conference, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that four felony and 42 misdemeanor criminal charges would be filed against Plains for last May’s pipeline rupture on the mountain side of the freeway by Refugio Beach. Because of that spill, an estimated 142,000 gallons of crude oil escaped; 21,000 gallons made its way onto the beach and into the ocean. Dudley and Harris declined to provide many details about the specific counts, explaining the indictment could not be made public until after the arrests are made on June 2. The arraignment is scheduled for June 6.

According to a Plains press release, 10 of the counts relate to the actual release of crude oil and the alleged failure of Plains officials to report the spill in a timely fashion to the proper government agencies. The rest pertain to wildlife reportedly killed as a result of the spill. Of the 46 charges, 45 have been leveled against Plains All American, the corporation; one was filed against a Plains employee, James Buchanan, an Environmental and Regulatory Compliance officer. Dudley declined to specify what Buchanan is accused of other than to indicate it’s a misdemeanor rather than a felony. If found guilty and given the maximum sentence, Dudley said, Buchanan could face as many as three years in county jail, but she stressed the possibility was extremely unlikely given the acute shortage of jail beds, among other reasons.

This may well be the first time criminal charges have been brought by Santa Barbara prosecutors for any environmental transgression; Dudley said she didn’t know of any before. Plains All American has been fined $48 million in 28 separate complaints filed by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010, but this may be the first time the pipeline company — one of the largest operators in the country — has faced criminal charges.

DA Joyce Dudley (left) and AG Kamala Harris
Paul Wellman

Dudley and Harris said they were barred from explaining what actions Plains took — or did not take — that rose to the level of criminal conduct. Likewise, the two said they could not discuss why some charges were filed as felonies as opposed to misdemeanors. The charges were filed by a Santa Barbara Grand Jury, which met 10 times and heard from more than 30 witnesses, Dudley said, not by her deputies. The evidence against Plains, she said, and the reasons behind the criminal charges would be manifest once transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings were publicly released. Those transcripts are typically released 10 days after the arraignment, though Plains might petition the court to have the records sealed.

When one reporter asked — with some impatience — what purpose the press conference served if such information was not given, Harris replied, “to provide transparency.” One political operative observing the proceedings noted that Harris is running for Senate against 29 other contenders and that the June primary was just three weeks off. Harris, with 27 percent in the polls, is well ahead of her closest rival, Orange County Congressmember Loretta Sanchez, who has just 14 percent. But with 42 percent of the voters still undecided, anything can happen.

Certainly, Tuesday’s press conference provided Harris — who was recently married in Santa Barbara — an environmentally heroic backdrop for campaign photo ops. “The carelessness of Plains All American harmed hundreds of species and marine life off Refugio Beach,” she stated. “This conduct is criminal, and today’s charges serve as a powerful reminder of the consequences that flow from jeopardizing the well-being of our ecosystems and public health.”

Political motivations aside, the Grand Jury finished its work on May 16, Dudley explained, and the deadline for Dudley and Harris to file misdemeanor charges is 5 p.m., May 18. The deadline for filing felonies is two years. The two prosecutorial offices launched their joint criminal investigation of the oil spill three days after the badly corroded underground pipe burst — the DA began her investigation the day the spill was found — and have been working together closely ever since. Should the case go to trial, the two agencies would try the case together as co-counsels.

Plains All American, however, had no intention of supinely serving as the “bad guy” prop for any political photo op, and the company actually broke the story first with an early Tuesday morning news release insisting that the spill was strictly accidental, and not criminal. “Neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time,” the unsigned release stated. “Criminal charges are unwarranted. We will vigorously defend ourselves.” That release, and several after it, stressed the high level of cooperation the company provided, spending $150 million on cleanup efforts. When asked if she agreed with Plains’ characterization of its cooperativeness, Dudley stated simply, “No.” Harris said, “They have been less than cooperative.” What that meant, Dudley said later, would be clear once the transcripts are released. To the extent Plains knew or should have known the risk their pipeline posed, that, too, will be detailed by testimony found in the transcripts.

Part of the problem is that the federal rules and regulations dictating oil pipeline safety standards have been notoriously mushy and that the federal agency charged with enforcing these standards — guidelines more often than rules — is notoriously understaffed. Plains personnel waited at least three hours after they knew of the spill before notifying the National Response Center. On May 19, sudden pressure drops just before 11 a.m. on Line 901 — the pipeline in question — caused Plains employees in Midland, Texas, to shut down the line by remote control. It would not be till 2:54 in the afternoon that federal emergency officials were notified. Congressmember Lois Capps sits on a congressional committee that’s now attempting to tighten these rules and regulations during her last year in office. Capps has termed these efforts “a start,” but has said they don’t go far enough.

This story has been changed to reflect that arrests are due June 2, and the arraignment on June 6. Also, the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office began its investigation the day the spill was found.


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