One year after Santa Barbara oil spill, California presses criminal charges

The May 2015 spill forced 21,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. If convicted, Plains All American Pipeline could face $2.8 million in fines.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
An oil-covered bird flaps its wings at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., after an oil pipeline ruptured last May. On Tuesday, the state of California filed 46 charges against Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees in connection with the pipeline break.

A Texas oil pipeline company has been indicted in connection with one of the largest oil spills to strike the California coastline in decades.

Plains All American Pipeline and one of its employees now face 46 counts of state law violations, which could cost the company up to $2.8 million in fines if convicted.

Over 100,00 gallons of oil gushed from the company's failed pipeline, spilling along the coast near Refugio State Beach west of Santa Barbara, on May 19, 2015. The spill forced about 21,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, leading officials to close the beach for about two months. More than 300 animal deaths were blamed on the spill, including pelicans and sea lions. 

Federal, state, and local agencies began investigating the company shortly after the spill. An initial federal investigation found external corrosion on the oil pipeline to blame. Last June, the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an additional probe, asking the company to provide a detailed account of what led to the incident, including what Plains All American was doing at the time of the spill and what it did to address the problem, as the Monitor reported at the time.

The pipeline company, which transports and stores crude oil all over North America, has said that the spill was an accident and that the criminal charges are inappropriate. The company had started testing the pipes a few weeks before the spill, but the results had not been analyzed when the pipes broke.

"Plains is deeply disappointed by the decision of the California Attorney General and Santa Barbara District Attorney to pursue criminal charges against Plains and one of its employees in connection with the 2015 accident," the company said Tuesday. "Plains believes that neither the company nor any of its employees engaged in any criminal behavior at any time in connection with this accident, and that criminal charges are unwarranted."

The spill has been deemed the largest coastal oil spill in 25 years, with cleanup costs reaching $92 million.

Some environmental advocates have applauded the indictment, saying that it may help provide insight into what happened and whether the company responded appropriately.

"There’s some satisfaction in knowing that the legal authorities are pursuing this," Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told the Los Angeles Times. "We hope it will result in some penalties that can be used to help restore some of the damage."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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