In the Refugio Oil Spill case, Plains All American Pipeline argues the Grand Jury transcripts should be kept secret.
Paul Wellman (file)

In the first legal skirmish to take place in open courtroom, attorneys for Plains-All American Pipeline Company — now facing 46 criminal charges in connection with last May’s pipeline oil spill — made it clear they’re seeking to keep transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings leading to the indictments under wraps, arguing their public release could prejudice their client’s ability to get a fair trial. Santa Barbara prosecutor Kevin Weichbrod made it equally clear that he plans to challenge that motion. The first hearing on the matter has been scheduled for June 16.

The District Attorney’s Office released the first 11 pages of the indictment, but attorneys for Plains objected to releasing the indictment in its entirety. That information provides the names of witnesses and information pertaining to other individuals who had at one time been under investigation. In general, the indictment claims Plains engaged in behavior that the company knew — or should have known — would cause an oil spill. Of the 46 counts, two are felonies. The vast majority relate to individual deaths of an elephant seals, sea lions, brown pelicans, cormorants, porpoises, loons, gulls, shearwatwers, auklets, grebes, and terns killed by the spill.

Three misdemeanor charges were filed against James Buchanan, Plains’ environmental and regulatory compliance specialist, for failure to notify state emergency response agencies within the time spans required. Although Buchanan was never arrested or booked he has been released on his own recognizance in lieu of bail.

“He’s not guilty of any of these unfounded charges,” declared criminal defense attorney Douglas Richards of Denver, “and we look forward to demonstrating that in court.”

Plains has insisted that the oil spill of May 19 — in which 140,000 gallons of oil leaked out of Pipeline 901 on the mountain side of Highway 101, a portion of which ultimately bled onto the beach and into the ocean — was strictly an accident. Santa Barbara prosecutors — as well as prosecutors with the California Attorney General’s Office — contend that had Plains knew or should have known its pipelines were badly corroded. Had established safety prevention and response protocols been followed, the prosecutors assert, the accident could have been averted or greatly minimized.


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