Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp., and it’s two subsidiaries Beta Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co., were indicted by a federal court in Los Angeles on Wednesday over their role in the Huntington Beach oil spill that occurred in early October.
The spill, first detected on October 1st, was caused by a 13-inch split in the pipeline. Officials believe that the pipeline that sprung the leak had likely been dragged for over 100 feet earlier this year by a container ship with its anchor down. The pipeline, which connects the Elly drilling platform off the coast to the Long Beach Harbor, then finally broke open, sending 3,000 barrels, or, 126,000 gallons, of post production crude oil into the ocean, becoming larger than other recent oil spills in California, such as the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara County in 2015.
The spill threatened area beaches for a week, with Governor Gavin Newsom declaring the spill a State of Emergency due to the ecological effects, on October 5th. While beaches reopened quickly, with most only staying closed around a week, the economic losses had been staggering, with federal disaster assistance for businesses beginning to come in in late October.
However, the question of blame has hung over the investigation for the last few months. Environmental groups sued the federal government last month for causing the spill due to not updating platform plans since the early 1980’s, but the oil company itself had not been charged with anything.
That changed on Wednesday. Amplify and its two subsidiaries were charged by a federal grand jury with a misdemeanor count of illegally discharging oil. According to the indictment, the company had failed to respond to alarms for over 13 hours that a rupture had occurred on the night of October 1st.
Rather than shut down completely, investigators said that the ruptured pipeline was shut down then restarted multiple times, allowing oil to continue to spill out of the pipeline. While the first alarm had gone out on October 1st, the leak was not discovered and reported until the next morning. The indictment added that the pipeline staff had not been trained on the leak detection system, were fatigued, and was understaffed when the leak occurred, contributing to the damage.
Amplify responded on Wednesday to the indictment by saying that the system had not been working properly, explaining there was a leak at a platform where none had been occurring at the time. This left them to believe for a while that it was simply a false alarm.
“Had the crew known there was an actual oil spill in the water, they would have shut down the pipeline immediately,” Amplify said in a statement on Wednesday.
Oil drilling experts also said on Wednesday that the spill was likely not solely the companies fault.
“Even if it had been worse case scenario and they knew about the leak and didn’t stop it for those 13 hours, they would still only be partially to blame,” explained Ed H. Stevens, an Orange County oil executive whose family has been involved in oil production in California for nearly a century. “Whenever a spill happens to this level, a number of unlikely things have to happen in a sequence. So the blame. Do you blame the ship for dragging their anchor and rupturing the pipeline? Do you blame the pipe manufacturer for not making completely damage resistant pipes? Do you blame the company for not detecting it, and later, not responding quickly? Do you blame the Government for not staying current on pipeline and platform checks and standards? Do you blame the workers for not adhering to the rules? Do you blame executives and managers for not training them properly? A lot had to happen for the spill to really occur, so the company is only really partially at fault at most. We don’t know. We have to see how it plays out in court.”
If Amplify is found guilty, the company may pay up to seven-figures in fines, as well as face up to five years of probation.
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