The criminal oil spill trial of Plains All American Pipeline lasted four very long months. Jury deliberations lasted nearly six very long days. This Friday, the jury rendered a verdict that was sufficiently mixed that both sides can legitimately claim victory. Bottom line: Plains was found guilty of one felony count and eight misdemeanor counts.
What the results mean will be the subject of much speculation and motions for new trials. The jury decided Plains was guilty of nine of the 15 counts with which it was charged in connection with the oil spill of May 2015 in which 142,000 gallons of crude spilled into the ocean by Refugio State Park. All but one of those counts was for misdemeanor charges having to do with the death of sea mammals or sea birds caused by the spill. One was for failing to report the spill to federal authorities in the time required by federal law. Of the guilty verdicts, only one was for a felony. That was for engaging in behavior the company knew or should have known would have caused the spill.
But the same jury hung on two other felony counts that were nearly identical to the one for which a guilty verdict was rendered. In one, the charge was that the company knowingly discharged a pollutant into navigable waters of the United States. In the other, the charge was that the Texas-based pipeline company knowingly caused a hazardous substance to be deposited on a state road, street, highway, or railway right-of-way. In both instances a lone juror held out.
After the verdict was announced, a cluster of six jurors chatted in the courthouse hallway. When asked what the verdict meant, one juror threw his head back and laughed. “I don’t know what it means,” he said. The others nodded in assent. The lone holdout, Gary Birch — a retired firefighter with the City of Santa Barbara, contended the prosecution failed to make the case on three counts. To the extent he felt pressure to go along, he didn’t show it. “I’ve always been a pretty independent minded person,” he said.
The Plains trial may not have been the longest criminal trial in county history, but it’s the longest anyone can remember. No closure was achieved. Plains’ attorneys made it clear they plan to petition Judge James Herman for a new trial. And with only one dissenting juror on the two felony counts, the District Attorney and Attorney General may want a new trial as well. But as it stands, Plains could be hit with fines in the millions of dollars.
With re-trial motions pending, neither side was feeling chatty immediately afterward. Later, Plains issued a release noting that of the 46 charges initially brought against the company, only 15 stuck and the rest were dismissed. Plains insisted its operations on Line 901 either met or exceeded legal and industry standards and that the verdicts reflected “no knowing wrongdoing” by the company or its employees. District Attorney Joyce Dudley said the verdict “should send a message: If you endanger our environment and wildlife we will hold you accountable.”
The charges stemmed from the South Coast’s last major oil spill, caused three years ago when Plains’ pipeline 901 — which runs along the coast — ruptured on the mountain side of Highway 101. From there, it pooled, ran under the freeway via a culvert, over the lip of the cliff by Refugio beach, and down into the ocean. The spill triggered a massive cleanup effort that lasted several months. It effectively shut down oil production by three of the major producers processing their crude at Las Flores Canyon. Venoco, already overextended, would be pushed into bankruptcy and Freeport-McMoRan has announced plans to shut down its operations. ExxonMobil is attempting to resume production and is seeking permit to ship its oil by truck rather than pipeline.
The criminal case against Plains — filed jointly by the Santa Barbara District Attorney and the California Attorney General — is the first of many legal battles that will consume the pipeline company for years to come. A felony conviction — even only one — could prove helpful to the many litigants now suing the company for civil damages.
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected on September 8, 2018, to reflect it was on nine total counts, not 12, that the jury found Plains guilty.