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The aftermath of the 2015 Refugio oil spill. (Photo: SBI)

California Pipeline Owner to Settle With EPA for $60 Million Over Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Settlement over 2015 spill awaits approval of federal court

By Evan Symon, March 16, 2020 5:02 pm

Plains All American Pipeline agreed to settle with the Environmental Protection Agency over  a 2015 oil spill in Santa Barbara County for $60 million on late Friday, almost ending an almost 5-year saga over the incident.

The 2015 Refugio oil spill

The Refugio spill, which occurred on May 19, 2015, blackened the Santa Barbara County coastline for miles with 100,000 gallons of oil, killing wildlife and destroying tourism in the area for months. It was found that Plains workers working remotely in Texas had not detected the spill as an alarm had been turned off, and then only exacerbated the situation by turning the line off and on, pumping more oil into the sea.

Carpinteria resident Bruce Knowles, who was among some of the first people to call in reports of the beach spill along with his wife Abigail, remembered the damage firsthand.

“I was driving back the next day when I saw these black blotches moving along the water,” said Knowles. “You could barely make them out. I pulled over and it was all of these little sandpipers barely moving. They weren’t running away or anything. They had just seemed to have given up to die.”

“They were coated in oil, and the beach and the water were ink black. It was like something out of a horror movie. The only other time I could remember something like this was with the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, and I wasn’t even up there for that.”

“`When I heard they were paying this weekend, everyone I know who remembered it happening  felt like ‘They deserve it.'”

The EPA and outstanding charges

The EPA, who brought this matter to court, inspected Plains pipelines after the spill, and in addition to human error, they found that many errors, including a slow response to the spill, were factors in how damaging it was. Plains apologized for the oil spill and had paid $335 million in cleanup and other associated costs, along with narrowly avoided felony charges for their role in the spill. However the damage to other oil companies who used the pipeline because of he pipeline break and the outstanding safety law violations has hung over the heads of Plains for years, despite the company complying with heightened safety regulations.

“This was and is still a big deal,” explained Los Angeles-based environmental lawyer Janet Langston. “Companies usually hope that by giving extra goodwill after something bad happening will turn eyes away, but it didn’t. They updated a lot of things, including how they dealt with oil spills.”

“But the EPA kept at it because the violations themselves weren’t settled. So that’s $60 million going to the EPA, much of which will go into restoration of the environment and to prevent future incidents like this. Plus they got the equivalent of probation, with the US and California constantly looking over their shoulder through 2025 to make sure that everything is good and that they aren’t breaking any more rules. It also most likely means that some of those remote jobs in Texas will have to physically be in California. You can bet that the EPA won’t allow remote monitoring of oil spills like that anymore.”

“California, especially in the [Assembly and Senate] will also probably bring out more laws. They did in the years following, but now that they can be held accountable for money by the EPA, California will probably get some bills up soon so they can get a larger piece of the fines too. They’d be crazy not to, especially against an out-of-state based company that would have fewer ties and lobbyists here.”

$60 million

The $60 million fine includes $24 million in penalties and $22 million to restore, improve, and protect the environment against oil spills and other problems in the future.

“This represents a significant step and is the culmination of collaborative discussions with federal and state agencies over the course of a multi-year period,” said Plains spokesman Brad Leone in a statement. “The consent decree sets forth certain improvement actions that we are implementing into our operations. We take our responsibility for the safe delivery of energy resources very seriously.”

Following the settlement agreement late last week, the agreement is now due for public comment. Should the agreement proceed after that, it is due to be approved by a federal court. The spill was the worst in California in half a century, following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that released 3,000,000 gallons into the Pacific Ocean.

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