District Attorney Joyce Dudley | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Southern California Edison has pleaded no contest to a criminal violation of the California Water Code and will pay $3.5 million in civil penalties after dumping massive amounts of dirt and rock into Mission Creek during an unpermitted grading project along Spyglass Ridge Road. District Attorney Joyce Dudley made the announcement Monday.

“The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office is committed to prosecuting violations of California’s environmental laws,” Dudley said in a press statement. “While the decision to charge a corporation criminally is not one that prosecutors take lightly, our office will do so when the underlying conduct warrants such action. We believe the resolution in this case reflects the seriousness of SCE’s impact on our environment.” 

The case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorneys Morgan Lucas and Christopher Dalbey and was supervised by Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota.

Between December 4 and December 16, 2019, court filings show, Edison carried out a major road maintenance and widening project along 1.6 miles of Spyglass Ridge Road, beginning at the base of the Inspiration Point trailhead, without ever securing approvals from the county or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. To perform the work, Edison brought in large construction equipment, including an excavator and bulldozer, and closed the area, which is frequently used by hikers to access several popular trails. 

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The project generated nearly a million gallons of rock, sediment, and debris, known as “sidecast,” that Edison dumped down the slopes into Mission Creek below. Officials said the company’s actions resulted in the deaths of rare plants (Santa Barbara honeysuckle, Plummer’s baccharis, Hubby’s phacelia, and coastal sage scrub oak); loss of individual trees (coast live oak, bay laurel, and western sycamore); and the destruction of habitat for numerous animal species (Coastal Range newt, two-striped garter snake, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California scrub jay, Cooper’s hawk, Bewick’s wren, and more). It also altered the streambed by obstructing water flow.

“Due to the large volume of sidecast and the large size of some of the rocks deposited in Mission Creek and its tributaries, some of the sidecast may not be removable without causing further damage,” the civil complaint in the case reads. “As a result, some of the environmental harm is likely permanent.” The installation of rock-fall netting over a large portion of the cliff face is also likely permanent, the prosecutors noted.

Edison halted the project after receiving a cease-work order from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Since then, the company has cooperated with authorities, Dudley said, and engaged in extensive efforts to improve the safety and stability of the area. Additionally, Dudley said, Edison is working with the county and Fish and Wildlife to remediate the damage.

The $3.5 million in civil penalties the company will pay ― which are in addition to whatever costs it incurs to repair the area ― will be divided between the county, the state’s Fish and Game Preservation Fund, and other environmental projects in the Santa Barbara area. Those include maintaining the Jesusita and Tunnel trails, revegetating Mission Canyon and Mission Creek with native plants, researching and monitoring the health of Mission Creek, and funding efforts to clean Santa Barbara’s front-country trails and creeks.

As a practical matter for the company, the criminal violation will only result in a $10,000 fine to the State Water Quality Control Board, though it could impact Edison’s shareholder confidence and affect the approval of future bank loans.

Edison will also reimburse the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office for $25,000 in investigation and prosecution costs.

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