Criminal Charges Possible After Santa Barbara Oil Spill

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After last month’s devastating Santa Barbara oil spill, investigators have been working round the clock to determine the cause of the rupture and whether civil or criminal charges will be filed, according to California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

What’s the Problem?

June 5, 2015 – Harris said yesterday that her office is weighing potential criminal charges against Plains All American Pipeline, the operators of a pipe that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean on May 19.

“We’re going to go where the evidence takes us,” Harris told reporters, saying she was working with Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s office to determine what exactly went wrong — and why.

Preliminary findings from a report issued this week by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) revealed that the pipe was badly corroded before it ruptured. Plains discovered that the area around the break point had at least 4 troublesome spots just weeks before the rupture occurred, PHMSA said.

The oil spill forced the closure of Refugio State Beach while officials assess and clean up the environmental damage, according to CNN.

“There’s still quite a bit of work to do,” said Richard Rozzelle, a district superintendent for California State Parks. He told reporters that Refugio will likely remain closed throughout the rest of the month. More than 2 weeks after the spill, Rozzelle said dead birds and other marine animals are still washing ashore.

Pipeline Corrosion

Officials are still uncertain as to what exactly caused the spill; however, the preliminary report said Plains had found “extensive external corrosion” in the pipeline before the rupture. In the worst areas, corrosion had eaten away 54% to 74% of the pipe wall. The company is among the worst violators of safety and maintenance regulations, according to PHMSA.

Operator’s History of Environmental Violations

Plains has had more safety and maintenance infractions than all but 4 of more than 1,700 oil pipeline operators, PHMSA said. Since 2006, the company has had at least 175 federal safety and maintenance violations, responsible for over 16,000 barrels of spilled and more than $23 million in property damage.

Plains All American Pipeline Settlement

In 2010, Plains was ordered to pay more than $40 million by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Justice Department. At the time, regulators found the company violated federal environmental regulations at least 10 times between 2004 and 2007, when over 273,000 gallons of crude oil were leaked into waters or shorelines in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. Most of the spills were caused by pipeline corrosion, according to the EPA.

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