Slow Start for Refugio Oil Spill Pipeline Trial

Plains All American Faces Charges of Criminal Negligence

The site where Plains All American's pipeline ruptured, pouring 144,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean
Paul Wellman (file)

Judge James Herman admonished attorney Brett Morris to liven up his questioning of a key witness for Plains All American Pipeline Company, lest Morris — a prosecutor with California’s Office of the Attorney General — put the jurors to sleep. Thus far, the court case against Plains — facing 15 counts of negligence in connection with the Refugio Oil Spill of 2015 — has been an exceptionally slow slog as the prosecution lays out its case. Did the pipeline company’s conduct leading up to the spill — during which 144,000 gallons of crude from a burst Plains pipeline got into the ocean — and failure to contain it afterward qualify as criminal?

Just two days into the trial, one juror expressed confusion as to what the actual charges against the pipeline company were. Two weeks into it, Judge Herman wouldn’t allow prosecution witness Dr. Takashi Wada — Santa Barbara County’s former public-health director — to testify, finding that anything Wada had to say about the spill’s impact on human health was utterly irrelevant to any damage inflicted on sea creatures. Plains has been charged with killing sea creatures, not harming human health.

Even so, the prosecution team, which includes county prosecutor Kevin Weichbrod, managed to score points, painting Kathy Randall, the senior Plains administrator at the scene of the accident, as less than on top of things. Morris — whose laborious questioning of Randall sparked Judge Herman to warn against lulling jurors to sleep — got her to testify that she never called either of the state or federal agencies to which such spills should be reported. (Ultimately, Plains employee James Buchanon would notify the National Reporting Center more than two hours after the spill, exceeding the two-hour legal requirement for such notifications. Since then, the law has been tightened to require notification within an hour.) Randall testified that she tried calling Clean Seas, an oil-spill emergency-response crew established and funded by the oil industry, but that she had the wrong number.

Ultimately, Randall would have to get the correct number from Elsa Arndt, then a senior emergency planner with the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Arndt testified she asked Randall to call, noting that the agency placing such calls to Clean Seas often got tagged for the costs involved. She testified she called Randall back to make sure the call had been made. Randall told Arndt that she tried but that she had the wrong number. Only after she gave Randall the correct number, Arndt testified, did Plains contact the cleanup crews directly. By then, however, other agencies — OEM included — had already done so.

Arndt noted that Plains had held two “tabletop” emergency-response drills for an oil spill along Refugio before, once in 2012 and another in 2009. The 2012 drill bore an uncanny resemblance to the spill that actually occurred, flowing out to the ocean from the north side of the freeway through a culvert. In neither instance, Arndt testified, were any county emergency-response agencies invited; county emergency planners only found out about the drills after they had occurred. In neither instance, Arndt added, was County Fire invited. Instead, she noted, the Santa Maria Fire Department had been asked to participate. The site of the Refugio Oil Spill lay far outside the Santa Maria department’s service area. County Fire, by contrast, was the first agency to respond to the spill. None of this looked good for Plains; whether it qualifies as criminal negligence, however, will be up to the jury to decide. The trial is expected to last several months.


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