Plains All American Pipeline CEO and Chair Gregory Lee Armstrong
Paul Wellman (file)

Plains All American Pipeline CEO and Chair Gregory Lee Armstrong testified at the company’s criminal trial on Monday that seeing the Refugio Oil Spill in person made him sick to his stomach. Armstrong said Plains took full responsibility for the event, and the $155 million it shelled out for cleanup aligned with his directive to “do the right thing.” His testimony also triggered a lawyerly squabble as prosecutor Brett Morris inquired if Plains employed lobbyists ahead of the 2015 spill or had negotiated with federal agencies regarding the trial. In response, defense attorney Gary Lincenberg motioned to end the case in a mistrial, arguing that Morris’s conduct was “inflammatory and intentionally misleading.” Judge James Herman didn’t take issue with the questions.

Overall, Armstrong’s testimony about the company was vague. His picture of pipeline operations came from thick quarterly reports and executive meetings; he didn’t know pipeline segment Line 901 by name until it ruptured on his birthday. Armstrong arrived in Santa Barbara the next day and saw the spill from a helicopter.

A witness more central to Plains’ defense followed Armstrong: Ngiabi Gicuhi, who was Plains’ western director of environmental and regulatory compliance at the time of the spill. Gicuhi helped hammer out the company’s spill-response plan, and because that 1,000-page document received federal and state approval, Plains attorneys have argued that the company was prepared to respond appropriately to the oil in the ocean. The prosecution, however, has pointed out Plains employees’ failure to adhere to the plan, which the defense has answered with the “actual circumstances may vary” phrasing that’s sprinkled throughout the document.

The trial is slated to last through August.


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