Oil Pipeline Company Indicted in Santa Barbara Spill

Workers clean up oil on the beach in Santa Barbara from the Refugio pipeline break. Photo by Jules Griggs.

A Texas pipeline company responsible for spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil on the California coast last year was indicted on dozens of criminal charges in the disaster that closed popular beaches and killed sea lions and birds.

Plains All American Pipeline, the Houston-based company, owns the 10.6-mile pipeline running alongside U.S. 101 that ruptured last May, sending the crude oil onto Refugio State Beach. Some of the oil got into the Pacific Ocean, and tar balls from the leak were found as far away as Manhattan Beach.

Initial investigations by federal regulators found the 2-foot-wide underground pipeline was severely corroded where it broke on land.

Plains is charged with four felony counts of spilling oil in state waters and could face fines of up to $2.8 million if convicted of all the charges, prosecutors said. A 41-year-old company employee who worked as an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist faces three charges.

Plains said in a statement that the spill was an accident and believes no criminal behavior occurred.

The spill came two weeks before Memorial Day weekend last year and forced the state to close popular beaches as an oil sheen spread over miles of the Pacific Ocean. More than 300 dead animals, including pelicans and sea lions, were found in the aftermath, and tar balls from the spill drifted more than 100 miles away to Los Angeles beaches.

The Houston-based company faces three dozen misdemeanor counts of harming wildlife.

A Plains employee and the company also are accused of failing to report the spill quickly enough to state emergency officials. An investigation by federal regulators found that it took hours for Plains to recognize what happened and notify officials.

Tests on the pipe had been conducted weeks before the spill, but the results had not been analyzed when it ruptured.